"I want people's eyes to roll into the back of their heads when they eat my food," says Elise Wiggins, the über-talented executive chef of Panzano, a Northern Italian restaurant in the Hotel Monaco. Food, like sex, should always be sensual, she explains. The Louisiana native would put her hands in different foods to familiarize herself with textures, and always knew that she'd like to be a chef. "Ever since I can remember, I've wanted to cook," says Wiggins, who cooked in kitchens throughout South America, Mexico and the South and ended up in Colorado because of intuition. "I had this calling at a young age that I wanted to cook in Colorado. This is where I want to live and die. My soul is here."
And so are her cattle. Wiggins recently partnered exclusively with John and Debbie Medved, who raise certified Black Angus steers and Scottish Highlands cattle at their Bear Mountain Ranch in Genesee. Wiggins is now buying entire steers from the ranch for Panzano, with the intent of utilizing as much of the steer, from nose to tail, as possible. "I'm a country girl, and when I was growing up, we'd break down the whole animal," says Wiggins. "We didn't waste much of anything."
And that seems to be Wiggins's motto: Waste not, want not. I recently sat down with the Panzano chef over coffee and telling tarot-card readings to talk about her new beef partnership with the Medveds, her aversion to yelling and throwing plates in the kitchen, her disdain for bulls' testicles and her admiration for Julia Child.
Six words to describe your food: Big, bold, umami, multi-layered, texturally complex.
Ten words to describe you: Naughty, energetic, loyal, passionate, creative, adventurous, competitive, driven, playful and direct.
Culinary inspirations: Julia Child. I didn't watch Sesame Street as a child; I watched Julia Child cook. She was so much fun -- she took the stuffiness out of cooking. I want to be her...
Proudest moment as a chef: I was a line cook at a Dallas restaurant called Grotto when, for the first time since I'd been cooking, I cooked something -- a duck sausage that we stuffed -- that was totally mine, and the customers loved it. Not long after that night, we put that dish on the menu. It was such a feel-good moment for me, with lots of oohs and aahs.
Favorite ingredient: Pesto. It goes with everything -- steaks, pasta, eggs, seafood, you name it. Right now at the restaurant I'm doing a bisteca with pesto and arugula salad, and it's the number-one best-seller on the menu. It's so light and refreshing that it can take something heavy like a steak and make it lighter. I don't know why pesto isn't the next condiment...like ranch dressing.
Favorite Colorado product: My beef. It's raised for me organically in the foothills on a ranch with 600 acres of open field. They feed on Colorado alfalfa hay -- the Cadillac of all feed -- finished with corn, and the beef has a shocking amount of marbling and tastes fabulous.
Most overrated ingredient: Filet mignon. It's the most expensive cut of meat -- all because of demand -- and yet it doesn't have any fat, so it doesn't have any flavor. It's just soft...and that's it. Customers will sometimes ask for it, but I refuse to have it my menu. That's where I draw the line.
Most undervalued ingredient: Outside skirt steak. It's got so much marbling, and it's not only tender, juicy and full of fatty flavor, but you can cook it until it's completely done and it will still taste great -- plus it's cheap.
One food you detest: Bulls' balls. I don't like the taste at all. Maybe that's why I'm a lesbian.
One food you can't live without: Louisiana hot-pepper sauce. I'll put it on pizza, eggs and on a lot of comfort foods, like red beans and rice. You can make the worst thing in the world palatable with pepper sauce.
Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen: It was 2001, and I was the executive chef at Palio, a four-diamond Westin resort restaurant in Puerto Rico. The chefs were assigned uniforms consisting of black jackets and polyester pants -- pants that no one had told me needed to get stitched again because they were so cheap that they'd unravel after a couple of washings. So one day I'm leaning forward while talking to my cooks through the pass-out line with my legs spread and my butt facing the dining rooms and servers stations, and I keep overhearing the male servers saying, "Mira! Mira!" which means, "Look! Look!" But every time I'd turn around, they'd quickly turn away and act like nothing had happened. Finally, a female manager from another restaurant whispered in my ear, "Nice ass!" I thought she was joking and shrugged it off, but she said, "No, no, your pants are split and you can see everything!" I jolted upright, threw my hands around to my backside and completely felt everything exposed from the top of my belt loop to the very middle of my crotch where the seams are sewn together. The kicker was that I wasn't wearing underwear. It's hysterical when I think about it now, but when it happened, I was mortified and wanted to crawl into a hole.
Favorite celebrity chef: Julia Child. I know she's gone, but she was the best -- so funny, entertaining and informative. There will never be another chef as good as she was.
Celebrity chef that should shut up: Giada De Laurentiis. I get it. I know that guys love her. And I like boobs and all, but that's all they show when she cooks. It drives me nuts.
Hardest lesson you've learned: You can't lead a team by force. When I was coming up through the ranks and cooking with Germans and Italians screaming at me and throwing plates, I realized that they were using fear to try and get the best out of me, but instead I was always nervous and would screw up even worse; I'd never get optimum results. I demand perfection, but I never yell, because yelling doesn't motivate people. I want my team to succeed, and I believe in pushing people, but instead of using force and yelling, I always ask, "Where's your love? That's not enough love."
What's next for you? Win the lottery and open my own restaurant. At some point, I'd really like to do an upscale Louisiana, Southern-style place with things like tasso and boudin blanc.
For part two of Lori Midson's interview with Elise Wiggins, check back here tomorrow.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.