Chefs Weigh in on Soon-to-Close Johnson & Wales University

Chefs in training learn pastry skills in one of the classroom kitchens at Johnson & Wales University.
Chefs in training learn pastry skills in one of the classroom kitchens at Johnson & Wales University. Courtesy Johnson & Wales University
The vibrant Johnson & Wales University campus in Denver's Park Hill neighborhood will soon end another historic chapter. The school announced on June 25 that it will not be enrolling new, incoming students for the fall 2020 semester, and will close the facility entirely after the spring 2021 semester. Johnson & Wales currently maintains four campuses in the U.S., but is closing its Denver and Miami locations in order to expand as a "comprehensive university" at its original Providence, Rhode Island, campus and at a second location in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The school's imminent closing is a big loss for Denver, since it has served as a training ground for many cooks and other hospitality-industry professionals since opening here in 2000, on the former home of Colorado Women's College (and, briefly, the University of Denver law school). Many restaurant owners hand-picked talent from the school's classrooms, and Colorado's hotels, resorts and convention centers are filled with JWU students and graduates, both in kitchens and in management positions.

While Johnson & Wales offers a wide variety of educational programs, it's known in Denver as a top professional cooking school, and nearly half of the student population here is enrolled in culinary programs offering associate's and bachelor's degrees. Many of the city's up-and-coming chefs, and a few established names, spent time in the college's classroom kitchens, where they made lasting connections that helped propel their careers in Denver restaurants and other fields. Here's what their time at Johnson & Wales University meant to many of them:

click to enlarge JWU graduate Thach Tran now runs the kitchen at Ace Eat Serve. - MARK ANTONATION
JWU graduate Thach Tran now runs the kitchen at Ace Eat Serve.
Mark Antonation
Thach Tran, 2010
Executive Chef, Ace Eat Serve
Tran lived on campus while attending Johnson & Wales and worked as a resident advisor, so he got to meet plenty of other students through on-campus events and social functions. "I had wanted to go there even before I graduated high school," he recalls. "It was really an awesome collective of chefs and other industry people." Tran worked at Sushi Den during his last year and after graduation, then landed a job under restaurateur Lon Symensma at ChoLon Modern Asian. He's been the executive chef at Ace Eat Serve since 2017.

Tim Kuklinski,  2008
Culinary Director, Crafted Concepts
While Kuklinski worked at fast-casual restaurants when he was a teenager, Johnson & Wales was his introduction to high-level professional cooking. "Everything was a foundation: It was my first time holding a sauté pan in my hand, my first time roasting and grilling," he says. "The unique thing I learned was just working with such a diverse group in the kitchen. Learning from the chefs there opened so many doors." Kuklinski landed an internship with Rioja while still in school, which led to a full-time position, and he's been with the company ever since. "I grew up with Crafted Concepts as it grew up," he notes.

click to enlarge Chef Ty Leon (right) with his Restaurant Olivia business partners Austin Carson and Heather Morrison. - JONI SCHRANTZ
Chef Ty Leon (right) with his Restaurant Olivia business partners Austin Carson and Heather Morrison.
Joni Schrantz
Ty Leon, 2011
Chef/Co-Owner, Restaurant Olivia and Bistro Georgette
"I made lifelong friends at Johnson & Wales; I don't know where I'd be right now if I hadn't gone there," Leon says, adding that he landed a job at the Michelin-starred Plumed Horse in Saratoga, California, shortly after graduating from the school, because of connections he'd made there. When he came back to Denver, he began working at Mizuna, where he became the executive chef in 2015 before going out on his own in 2018.

Austin Nickel, 2011
Chef de Cuisine, Spuntino
Austin Nickel was a semi-finalist for a Rising Star Chef of the Year award from the James Beard Foundation this year for her work at Spuntino, but she'd already paid her dues at a number of other Denver eateries before attracting national attention. "I did my internship at Sullivan's Steakhouse, when it was on Wazee Street," she recalls. "I also went on to work for Hilton and Euclid Hall in the early parts of my career. I definitely feel that the degree from J&W helped me gain better job positions and a higher starting wage. I had never worked in the industry professionally until graduation. I don't believe I would be as far as I am in my management career in the last ten years if I had not chosen to attend the culinary program."

Jeffrey Steen, 2006
"I will always remember JWU as a culinary playground," says Steen, who has followed a different path, choosing to write about food and restaurants rather than work in them. He edited publications at the university, went on to become managing editor of DiningOut, and continues to work in the field of writing, editing and content management. "I came to the Denver campus after several educational misfires, desperately wanting a way to express myself creatively while feeding my passion for food and cooking," he remembers. "It was in the culinary labs at JWU, surrounded by other wide-eyed neophytes, that I learned the art of Hollandaise, the import of terroir on a bottle of wine, and the only way to cook a steak.

"It’s sad to know these invaluable experiences won’t be offered to future Denver chefs, but the legacy of the university lives on — leaving an indelible mark on our restaurants, chefs, and culinary greats," he adds. "Thanks, JWU, for being such a formative part of my foray into the wide world of food."
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Mark Antonation is the former Westword Food & Drink Editor. In 2018, he was named Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association; he's now with the Colorado Restaurant Foundation.
Contact: Mark Antonation