To start the year, Westword chose 21 people to watch in 2021, some obvious and some unexpected. Our list includes everyone from politicians, to artists, musicians, business owners and people in the food and beverage industry.
Over the past year, even in the most difficult of circumstances, chefs and entrepreneurs continued building the city's restaurant and food scene into a dynamic, diverse and delicious blend of cultures, traditions and new perspectives.
Here are four people we plan to watch in Denver's culinary scene in 2021.
The Taste of Tradition
A smoking, brick-lined pit next to an urban garden at RISE Westwood in west Denver might be one of the most important additions to Denver’s Mexican food scene in years. Chef Jose Avila built the underground oven — called an hoyo — to produce barbacoa de borrego in the style of Tezontepec, Hidalgo. Good barbacoa can be made in a modern restaurant kitchen, but to capture the flavors of rural Mexico, the pit is necessary, as is a whole sheep, an armload of maguey leaves and a hardwood fire hot enough to turn stones red-hot to slowly cook the mutton overnight.
For nearly a decade, Avila has given Denver a taste of his home town of Mexico City at Machete Tequila & Tacos. But with El Borrego Negro, the chef’s Sunday-only barbacoa project, he’s making sure that ancient cooking traditions aren’t forgotten. The maguey leaves are roasted first, then used to line the oven and wrap the meat, and a big pot of consomé sits beneath the meat to catch the drippings as it cooks. The result is powerful and evocative, so much more than tacos prepared in a standard restaurant. Avila has partnered with a sheep farmer in northern Colorado so that Borrego Negro has its own flock of sheep with which to continue the barbacoa tradition.
Avila’s dedication to tradition can also be tasted at his X’tabai Yucateco trailer, from which he serves cochinita pibil, relleno negro, panuchos and other dishes of Yucatán.
Most of Denver was introduced to Carrie Baird in 2018, when she battled for the Top Chef title on the Bravo network. Baird didn’t win, but she made it to the final group of four chefs, and her perseverance, positive spirit and dedication to great food were clear, even on TV.
But Baird had been adding her style to Denver plates long before Top Chef; she worked her way up the ranks under the guidance of chef/restaurateur Jennifer Jasinski (herself a Top Chef Masters finalist) at Rioja and Euclid Hall. After time at Brazen, Baird joined the Bar Dough team as executive chef in 2017; in early 2020, she struck out on her own with Rose’s Classic Americana inside Boulder’s Rosetta Hall.
The timing proved ill-fated, though, as the coronavirus pandemic forced the shutdown of all in-house restaurant dining on March 17, just five days after the debut of Rose’s. Baird re-emerged once dining rooms began to reopen, only to be dealt another blow when Rosetta Hall decided to drop most of its opening lineup of chefs. Rose’s closed at the end of the summer, but after some time off for wrist surgery, Baird was back in the kitchen helping her friend Natascha Hess run the newly opened Asian street-food restaurant the Ginger Pig, on which the two had collaborated back in 2017, when Hess launched the Ginger Pig as a food truck.
Baird has said that she hopes to reopen Rose’s as a full brick-and-mortar eatery. No matter where this talented chef lands next, we’ll be among the first in line.
Good Food, Good Works
The first time we encountered chef Tajahi “Taj” Cooke, he was running Daniel Asher’s Mother Tongue counter at Broadway Market, working on a new onion jam for the lamb shawarma wrap and giving out samples to customers in line inside the food hall. Cooke came across as straightforward and trustworthy, and that onion jam was delicious, as was the lamb shawarma he spit-roasted to just the right level of pink and juicy goodness. And that’s how both the chef and his food continue to come across: straightforward, trustworthy and dedicated to continuing improvement.
That was true during Cooke’s brief time as executive chef at Biju’s Little Curry Shop (which closed in March because of the pandemic), and also at his fall pop-up dinners at Bruto, which highlighted the vegan Ital cuisine of his Jamaican upbringing. Since Biju’s closed, Cooke has launched Ms. Betty’s Cooking to create dining experiences like the one at Bruto, where only a handful of groups were served each night, and to sell curry powder based on the recipes of his grandmother, who immigrated to Jamaica from Bangladesh.
But the new company is also dedicated to helping the community: In November, Cooke organized a fundraiser for a Thanksgiving program that fed 2,000 people in need. He’s also on the culinary arts advisory board at Warren Tech High School. We’re looking forward to more dinners from Ms. Betty’s Cooking in 2021, and plenty of good food and good works from Cooke.
Rebel With a Cause
Those who had a chance to visit Rebel Restaurant, run by chefs Dan Lasiy and Bo Porytko from 2015 to 2018, understand the combination of whimsical creation, unusual ingredients and homestyle comfort that Denver lost when prolonged road construction in RiNo forced the two chefs to shutter their eatery.
Porytko returned to the scene in late 2019 with Misfit Snackbar, run from a shoebox of a kitchen inside the Middleman on East Colfax Avenue. Since then, he’s been turning out an eclectic assortment of ever-changing dishes that capture the spirit of Rebel, the traditions of Porytko’s Ukrainian upbringing (see the chef’s separate Dill & Dough menu for handmade pierogi and other dumplings) and an undiluted creative energy that makes every bite a source of joy and wonder. Even the humble corndog turns into something magical in Porytko’s hands; he uses kielbasa sausage instead of a hot dog and wraps it in a buckwheat jacket. Served with melted cheese, sauerkraut and a tangy sauce, it comes across as a transformed Reuben sandwich. Porytko shows a delicate touch with vegetarian platings, too, such as the nori-wrapped cantaloupe with cucumber he served this summer as a refreshing alternative to sushi.
Porytko doesn't just make food, he also uses Misfit Kitchen as a way to shine a light on social issues while raising funds for causes he believes in. Last summer, during the height of the protests against police brutality, the chef donated a week of sales and tips to the NAACP and National Bailout.
Whether Porytko continues with Misfit Snackbar or launches something new (we’d love to see the Ukrainian deli he’s talked about come to fruition), we’ll be at the bar sharing shots of Becherovka and whatever’s on the menu that day.
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.