Chef Shuffles: Changes at Sarto's, the Nickel and Mezcal

Chef Chris Thompson moved to Denver to open the Nickel in the newly refurbished Hotel Teatro in the summer of 2014. Expectations were high, considering that the previous tenant had been respected Denver restaurateur Kevin Taylor and his eponymous, dazzling eatery Restaurant Kevin Taylor. But after a complete ground-floor overhaul, Hotel Teatro went in a different direction, bringing in Thompson, previously of A16 in San Francisco, who built a menu based on Colorado products and a wood-burning oven that gave rustic charm to roasted meats and flame-kissed vegetables. The Nickel and its chef rose above standard notions of a hotel restaurant — especially one with a built-in clientele of theater-goers and conventioneers — to land on our list of the fifteen best restaurants to open last year.

But Thompson is gone now, taking some time to travel in Europe before he heads to Chicago to open a new restaurant there in the spring. Management at the Hotel Teatro confirms that executive sous-chef Alex Jun has been tapped to take over the helm as chef de cuisine at the Nickel — and for all the food served at the hotel.

Mezcal recently underwent a makeover, too, and owners Chris Swank and Loris Venegas brought in veteran Denver chef Chris Douglas (remember his regrettably short-loved Mexican gem Tula in Cherry Creek?) to get the ball rolling with a re-envisioned menu of antojitos (check out the huaraches) and entrees like fat, soft-battered chiles rellenos and tamales bursting from their husks with duck confit.  But now consultant Douglas's work is done, and he's handed the kitchen over to chef Juan Ramirez.

Less expected was the departure of James Rugile from Sarto's in Jefferson Park, where he took over after opening chef Brian Laird exited last spring. Rugile's cooking at the now-closed Venue in West Highland earned him a nomination for Rising Star Chef of the Year in 2010 by the James Beard Foundation. According to Sarto's owner Taylor Swallow, Rugile has moved back to the East Coast to be closer to family. And now chef Eric Lee, an East Coast kid himself who grew up on his mom's Italian home cooking, is taking over where Rugile left off.

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