On November 22, 2004, when Jennifer Jasinski and Beth Gruitch opened Rioja in Larimer Square, that block wasn't the dining destination that it is today -- and chef Jen was far from a household name. Fast forward ten years, and Larimer Square is an eating Eden, with Gruitch and Jasinski adding to the options with Bistro Vendome and Euclid Hall. And Jasinski has not only become a familiar face in her own kitchens and at fundraising events around town, she's also become a celeb chef featured on TV series and in national magazines -- most recently supplying a recipe for December Food & Wine.
In honor of Rioja's delicious decade of service, we asked the crew there to dish up ten of the restaurant's most memorable moments. See also: Jen Jasinski's James Beard Award Felt Like a Lifetime Achievement -- But Her Career Is Still Cooking
10) Rocky Mountain News Special Section, 2004 Rioja opened in November 2004 with a major media bang (including a not-so-great review from the Denver Post), but no one could have anticipated the effect of a Rocky Mountain News special section published in December and titled "The Pressure Cooker." Rocky reporter John Lehndorff and photographer Marc Piscotty had followed Jasinski, Gruitch and their opening team for a full year, chronicling the highs and lows of opening a new restaurant. The final product was a sixteen-page, four-color, special section with no advertising inserted into the Rocky. Fewer than five years later, the Rocky Mountain News was gone. The daily newspaper world has gone bust over the past decade, but Denver's restaurant scene is booming. 9) Wolfgang Puck Visit, 2006 Chef Jen had worked with Wolfgang Puck for more than eleven years before moving to Colorado to work at Panzano. In 2006, Puck was in town doing a dinner for a local bigwig and came by Rioja late one night; Jasinski got to show off her restaurant to her mentor. 8) Food Network Thanksgiving Challenge, 2006 Chef Jen's first major appearance on national TV was the Food Network Thanksgiving Challenge in 2006. The task -- create a complete Thanksgiving dinner in six hours, competing against Food Network star Alexandra Guarnaschelli, Boston chef Kevin Crowley and New York's Joey Campanaro. The cooks and servers at Rioja ate well for a month before the filming, as the chef practiced her turkey, three side dishes and dessert multiple times. 7) Democratic National Convention, 2008 The Democratic National Convention brought diverse crowds of suited men and women into Rioja and all the restaurants of Larimer Square for four days in August 2008. The close proximity to the Pepsi Center, home of the convention, created an unprecedented energy in Larimer Square -- and politicos continue to frequent Rioja.
6) Haiti Relief Dinner for Project C.U.R.E, 2010 Co-owner Beth Gruitch weighed in with a memorable, sold-out dinner in 2010 that brought together some of Denver's best chefs to raise money for Haiti disaster relief. John Broening, Alex Seidel, Yasmin Lozada-Hissom, Max Mackissock and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson teamed up with chef Jen for Haiti relief and Project C.U.R.E. Keep reading for five more memorable moments in Rioja's first ten years.
5) First award of AAA Four Diamonds, 2010 National recognition of Denver's culinary scene has come slowly and sparingly. In 2010, Rioja won its first AAA Four Diamonds Award -- a feat repeated every year since. 4) Publication of The Perfect Bite, 2011 Two years of writing, recipe-testing, editing and photography nearly went to waste when the publisher quit returning phone calls as the design of the Jasinski's cookbook was nearly finished. A sympathetic employee at the publishing house quietly loaded all the photos and files on several DVDs and mailed them to the Rioja team. A new printer in Singapore was secured and paid and the books arrived by boat three months later. The Perfect Bite featured 76 delicious recipes from the Rioja kitchen; it's still available. The original publisher, on the other hand, has gone bankrupt. 3) James Beard Foundation Best Chef Southwest, 2013 Jen Jasinski became the first Denver chef ever to win the James Beard Foundation Best Chef Southwest award. (Frasca's Lachlan MacKinnon-Patterson had brought one to Boulder in 2008.) Her rousing victory speech at the Lincoln Center awards ceremony began with her signature phrase: "Holy crap!" 2) Top Chef Masters, 2013 Chef Jen and chef Jorel Pierce cooked their way through all obstacles to reach the final night of Top Chef Masters, outlasting such nationally known talents as David Burke and Richard Sandoval, and winning $35,000 for Jasinski's chosen charity, Work Options for Women. 1) Cochon 555, 2014 Jasinski won big in the 2014 Denver competition for Cochon 555, a national tour featuring America's best chefs and their talents with heritage breed pork. She competed in Grand Cochon at the Food & Wine Festival in Aspen against the other national winners -- just days before joining Gruitch to open Stoic & Genuine, their newest venture at Denver's Historic Union Station. And one disaster: Not all memorable moments have been triumphs. Last November, Jasinski and several American Culinary Federation colleagues were scheduled to cook a beautiful Colorado lamb dish for 400 guests at the Governor's Mansion. The lamb was prepped, cooked a perfect medium rare and stored in the Rioja walk-in cooler the night before the event. Mid-afternoon, Jen went to load the lamb into her car for the trip to Eighth Avenue when she realized that one of the Rioja cooks had mistakenly grabbed her lamb, cut it into stew pieces and cooked it all the way through for another menu item at Rioja. This sent her scrambling for new product and sent the cook scrambling for another job.
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