Cafe Society

The Denver FIVE are passing the torch to five new chefs

In 2003, Leigh Sullivan was questioning what a lot of us in Denver ponder when discussing the Denver dining climate. Why, she wondered, is everyone focusing on the restaurants and chefs in San Francisco, Chicago and New York, when, in fact, Denver has its own vibrant culinary landscape? A landscape, believed Sullivan, that was getting the shaft.

So she did what any enterprising mouthpiece would do: She picked up the phone and called the chef programmer of the James Beard Foundation and pitched Denver as an up-and-coming restaurant scene with mega kitchen talent. And that, says Sullivan, the wife of TAG chef/owner Troy Guard, got the ball rolling for the Denver FIVE, a passel of five Denver chefs who cook once a year at the James Beard House and host sensational dinners at their respective restaurants.

At first, it wasn't an easy push, admits Sullivan. "The Beard Foundation was open and receptive when I made that first phone call, but nothing happened for the first few years, so I continued to badger them, and in 2005, not only were they receptive, they were totally on board with having a group of Denver chefs cooking at the Beard House."

The invitation had been extended, and now Sullivan had to choose five chefs that "would buy into this crazy, harebrained idea of mine to show all the big food cities out there that we were serious contenders." She found them at Vesta Dipping Grill, during a party celebrating the restaurant's birthday, at which several local guest chefs were invited. "I was watching Troy, Matt Selby, Tyler Wiard and Goose Sorensen in the kitchen, and they were all really supportive of each other and worked extremely well together, so I set up a meeting with all of them, and out of that, came my culinary dream team," explains Sullivan. She later approached Keegan Gerhard, the pastry chef/owner of D Bar Desserts, who expanded the group to five. "I had four amazing savory chefs, and really wanted to someone with a pastry chef to complement them," says Sullivan.

"The true beauty of all of this is that these chefs, aside from Troy, didn't know me from Adam, but when I presented the idea to them, they bought into it 110 percent and they've worked their tails off." Both Sorensen, the exec chef of Solera and Gerhard eventually dropped out and were replaced by Barolo Grill exec chef Brian Laird and Jamey Fader, the culinary director of Big Red F, the Dave Query group that owns Lola, Jax-Denver and -Boulder, West End Tavern, Happy, Zolo Grill and Centro.

And now, those five chefs are passing the torch to a new crop of Denver chefs. "When I started this concept, I wanted to bring five new chefs to the Big Apple every year, but as the years went by, I wasn't ready to let go. We were building momentum and these guys just got it." Last month, however, Sullivan realized that she needed to fulfill her promise to the Beard Foundation to parade a group of diversified kitchen magicians, so she summoned the current Denver Five and laid out her plans.

"They all completely agreed that it was time to bring on five new great chefs," says Sullivan, who issued an invitation to the chefs to become mentors of the new blood. "I want to keep pushing this forward and keep the momentum going, and these guys have been instrumental in helping me build that momentum, so I've asked them all to be chef liaisons." Guard and Wiard have already committed, and Sullivan is hopeful that Selby, Fader and Laird will stay involved, too.

How will the new chefs be chosen? Sullivan has her own wish list, and the Denver Five chefs are compiling rosters of their own. Each chef, she says, is compiling his own "culinary dream team" of five kitchen guards who they'd like to see take their plae. "We'll take a look at them all and approach who we believe will continue to showcase Denver's food scene," explains Sullivan. The goal, she says, is to choose five new chefs each year. "This group of chefs has been utterly fantastic, and we achieved so many of our goals, including having a huge presence at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic, doing numerous charity events where we raised a ton of money and calling attention to our amazing restaurant scene in Denver, and I'm certain that we can get five more who will continue to move us in the right direction."

Sullivan plans to announce the new bumper crop of chefs in early November.