This morning, March 29, the James Beard Foundation announced the 2023 finalists in the chef and restaurant award categories, and only one Coloradan made the cut out of thirteen that were named semifinalists in January.
In 2022, the Best Chef: Mountain Region category, which also includes Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming, was completely dominated by Colorado talent, with local chefs taking all five finalist slots and Annette owner Caroline Glover nabbing the win.
This year, just one local chef is among the five finalists: Michael Diaz de Leon of BRUTØ, which is part of Id Est Hospitality and is located inside Free Market at Dairy Block. The group is owned by Kelly Whitaker, who was also up for Outstanding Restaurateur but wasn't named a finalist in that category. At the seventeen-seat BRUTØ, Diaz de Leon turns out intimate dinners using a live oak fire and Latin ingredients. Like all of Id Est's restaurants, grain and fermentation play an essential role in a mission that goes far beyond the table, with corn taking center stage at BRUTØ.
"It's surreal, it's unbelievable. I'm in shock, and I'm extremely happy with the work we've done," Diaz de Leon says of the news of his nomination. "It's not just me. It's the whole staff, those that came before me, and the whole community. And this is just the beginning of my personal story. I have a lot to accomplish and bring to Denver."
Among the snubs is Dana Rodriguez, a three-time semifinalist — in 2015, 2016 and 2018 — as well as a finalist in 2020 and 2022. This time, she was a semifinalist for Outstanding Chef for Super Mega Bien; she also owns Work & Class and Cantina Loca. While this won't be her year to take home the award, she does have something else big on the horizon: Rodriguez is the executive chef of Casa Bonita 2.0, which is expected to open in May under new owners Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame.
Surprise nominee for Best New Restaurant, the Friar's Fork in Alamosa, didn't make the list of finalists, either, but the national recognition for a restaurant in a small Southern Colorado town is still an impressive accomplishment.
The lack of representation from Colorado among the finalists is a big shift from recent years. And while it's a disappointing turn, Denver's dining scene continues to thrive and evolve — for proof, just look at Emerging Chef semifinalist Bo Porytko's new eatery, Molotov Kitschen, and Id Est's most recent additions, Hey Kiddo and Ok Yeah. Diaz de Leon agrees that there is a lot of local culinary talent. "My next personal step is to bring Michelin to Denver. It's just a matter of time," he assures.
The 2023 winners will be announced at the James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards Ceremony on Monday, June 5, at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. And we'll be rooting for Diaz de Leon.