Awards and Honors

Colorado Scores Big on This Year's James Beard Semi-Finalist List

Spuntino chef/co-owner Cindhura Reddy (left) and chef Austin Nickel (center) are both James Beard Award semi-finalists.
Spuntino chef/co-owner Cindhura Reddy (left) and chef Austin Nickel (center) are both James Beard Award semi-finalists. Linnea Covington
The James Beard Foundation just announced the semi-finalists for its restaurant and chef awards, and Colorado scored big, especially in the new Best Chef: Mountain category, based on a redrawn region that also includes Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming (a change from the Best Chef: Southwest category of previous years that pitted Colorado against Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Oklahoma and Utah).

This year's Colorado semi-finalists for Best Chef: Mountain are Carrie Baird of Bar Dough, Caroline Glover of Annette, Duncan Holmes of Beckon, Tommy Lee of Hop Alley, Brother Luck of Four by Brother Luck (in Colorado Springs), Josh Niernberg of Bin 707 Foodbar (in Grand Junction), Cindhura Reddy of Spuntino, Dana Rodriguez of Super Mega Bien, Kelly Whitaker of The Wolf's Tailor and Luis Young of the Penrose Room at the Broadmoor Hotel.

But that's not the only good news. Sunday Vinyl, the latest project from the team behind Frasca Food and Wine and Tavernetta, received a nod in the Best New Restaurant category, which considers restaurants all over the U.S. Sunday Vinyl, a wine bar with a connoisseur-level sound system, opened in late December behind Union Station, just squeaking in at the tail end of 2019.

click to enlarge Jennifer Jasinski and Beth Gruitch have run Crafted Concepts together for nearly two decades. - WESTWORD
Jennifer Jasinski and Beth Gruitch have run Crafted Concepts together for nearly two decades.
More than one Colorado restaurant group landed on another semi-finalist list: Frasca, founded by Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson in Boulder in 2004, made the cut in the Outstanding Restaurant category, but so did Sushi Den, which brothers Toshi and Yasu Kizaki opened in 1984. This is the first nomination that the Den Corner group, which also runs Izakaya Den, Ototo and the forthcoming Temaki Den, has received from the James Beard Foundation. "The first thing that came into my mind was our dishwashers, who never get any credit," says Yasu Kizaki on learning of the nomination. "It's a great honor, and we're in great company with the other semi-finalists. It's our customers who made it happen; we're dedicated to our guests and serving the best fish possible."

In the Rising Star Chef of the Year category, chef Austin Nickel of Spuntino is representing Denver; she's been with Spuntino for just over three years, and the two semi-finalist nominations for the little eatery mean that word is finally getting out to the rest of the country about the great food that Spuntino has been turning out since 2014 under owners Reddy and Elliot Strathmann. "The only thing that could have made this more exciting was being nominated at the same time as the person who's next to me every day opening and closing our kitchen," Reddy says about her colleague Nickel, "putting her all into this funny little restaurant with me."

click to enlarge Sushi Den has earned a semifinalist spot for Outstanding Restaurant. - COURTESY SUSHI DEN
Sushi Den has earned a semifinalist spot for Outstanding Restaurant.
Courtesy Sushi Den
Denver has often been overlooked in the Outstanding Restaurateur category, but this year the foundation added Jennifer Jasinski and Beth Gruitch's restaurant group, Crafted Concepts, which runs Rioja, Bistro Vendôme, Stoic & Genuine, Euclid Hall and Ultreia. This is a first semi-final nod for the restaurant group as a whole, though Jasinski has been nominated for several awards over the years and won Best Chef: Southwest in 2013. "Beth and I are so incredibly honored to be recognized by not just our local community but nationally by the Beard Foundation!" Jasinski notes. "We have been in business together for twenty years, and this feels so great — what an honor to be included on this great list of semifinalists."

Other local semi-finalists include Williams & Graham for Outstanding Bar Program, and Todd Leopold and Scott Leopold of Denver distillery Leopold Bros. in the Outstanding Wine, Spirits or Beer Producer category. In Aspen, Element 47 at the Little Nell earned a spot on the Outstanding Wine Program list.

The list of semi-finalists represents the first round of selections for 2020; finalists will be announced on March 25, and then the James Beard Awards Gala (celebrating thirty years in 2020) will name the big winners on May 4 in Chicago.

With so many local semi-finalists on the roster, it seems likely that at least one Colorado chef or restaurant will be named a winner in May, adding to the James Beard Foundation America's Classic award earned by El Taco de Mexico earlier this month.

Congrats to all the chefs and restaurant-industry people helping make Colorado a true culinary destination.
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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