The signature signs of a city that's on the culinary fast track reside in its willingness to take aggressive risks, push infinite boundaries and continually adapt to a fickle dining public whose expectations are always on the upswing. Denver is that city -- a major metropolis that refuses to slow down, unleashing triumphant restaurants, watering holes and breweries commanded by innovative masterminds, the likes of which have resulted in a James Beard Award-winning chef, nationally crowned cocktail champions and Einsteins of beer.
See also: Welcome to Westword's 19th annual DISH
As a prelude to the September 22 DISH, Westword's annual celebration of the Denver dining scene, we picked the brains of nearly fifty Denver chefs, all of whom weighed in on Denver's current culinary landscape and the trends that have made their mark this past year. But that's not all we wanted to know: We also wondered which ingredient best personified their personalities and what ritual was an integral part of their daily routine.
Herewith the dish from Ryan Leinonen, Goose Sorensen, Jonathan Power and Noah Stephens; watch for more installments over the next several days, and don't miss part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six and part seven of our DISH chef series.
Ryan Leinonen Trillium See also: Ryan Leinonen on "Mr. Wizard," Velveeta, pig's nipples and the raw vegan
What don't people know about you that you wish they did? Sometimes I'm mistaken for an asshole because I'm very focused and passionate about what I do, but the reality is that I'm a sensitive, people-loving person.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you? Unfortunately, my morning cigarette. I can usually get through the rest of my day without one, and while I recently quit, I started again when my grandpa passed away. In all honesty, I really have trouble getting myself going in the morning without my brain sparkler. But with a baby girl -- our first -- on the way, I'm gonna have to learn to break the habit.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be? I'd like to possess the ability to mold time and space to my needs. It would be great to spend lots of time at home with my wife and new daughter, get everything done at -- and for -- Trillium, still have one day off for myself, and get enough sleep. Our lives are always in the weeds, and things get harder every day. It's impossible to stay caught up with everything that we have to do, but it sure would be nice.
What's the most positive trend in food, wine, cocktails or beer that you've noticed in Denver over the past year? I like the fact that chefs, bartenders and restaurateurs are taking risks by moving outside of LoDo's exterior and joining places like twelve and Trillium in the Ballpark neighborhood -- and going even farther north into RiNo. It's important to have some balls, take a chance, move away from the crowd, do your own thing, expand the city's dining scene, and attract people to the newly developing areas of Denver. You know: What's good for the goose...
Who's the one person to watch right now in the Denver dining scene? Theo Adley is a great, talented guy, and I'm really excited to see what he's going do at the Squeaky Bean.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality? Vanilla. There are days when I can be rather simple and plain, but on other days, I'll get in the mix and be dynamic and adventurous, adding a special element to what's going on. But nothing beats a great, simple vanilla ice cream cone.
If someone asked you to describe the current state of Denver's culinary climate, what would you say? Super-hot, fire and brimstone. Get out there and eat local.
What don't people know about you that you wish they did? Solera has made me into a very savvy and well-rounded businessman. After what I went through with my first business partner, I can handle just about anything from a broken water heater on a Friday night to the sheriff showing up in the middle of service and serving me legal documents because the grease trap backed up on New Years Eve. It's taken me eight years to crawl out of the huge financial hole that my old partner left me in, and while most folks just see us as crazy chefs and restaurateurs who have a great life of food, wine and partying, for me, it hasn't been all a party. What my experiences have made me, though, are a badass wine sommelier, which for most chefs is a huge stretch -- plus I now feel comfortable at the host stand, as well as in a room full of asshole lawyers. And I know what I'm looking for in the plumbing aisle at Home Depot. I understand the business part of what it takes to run a restaurant as opposed to just "playing" in a restaurant, which I see so many people do...and look what happens to them in the end.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you? Very strong coffee, a bran muffin and reading various newspapers, which are fairly depressing these days, so I stick to sports and the outdoors, mainly fly-fishing reports from rivers in Colorado and Wyoming.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be? The ability to zap annoying guests who are pissed off the minute they wake up into fun, laid-back guests who come to Solera to have fun and refrain from being assholes about everything and anything. I mean, come on, if you're going to get dressed up and go out for dinner, put a fucking smile on, get your drink on and pull the no-fun-stick out of your ass.
What's the most positive trend in food, wine, cocktails or beer that you've noticed in Denver over the past year? Before the days of Mel's Bar and Grill, where I used to work, culinary trends would hit the East and West coasts first, leaving Denver in the dust and always playing catch up - but now we're creating trends. Beer is huge; wine is getting there; the cocktail movement is great (although it's starting to get annoying); cheese is the real deal in Colorado; and our meat and produce is getting better every year. The younger chefs finally give a damn and take the time to learn their craft, rather than just sleeving their arms with tattoos of butcher knives and cool pictures of pigs and calling themselves a chef.
Who's the one person to watch right now in the Denver dining scene? Alex Siedel is the dude to watch right now. He's already got a great restaurant and farm that both turn out amazing stuff, and I know his new place at Union Station will be awesome. Alex is so focused and driven, and, like me, he grew up in cold weather -- and we cold-weather folks are hearty and hard working. My boy, Justin Brunson, is doing some great stuff at Old Major, too. I'm so proud of both of these young bucks.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality? The beet. It's a salt-of-the-earth ingredient that's hearty, versatile in that it tastes great hot or cold and it bleeds fucking red.
If someone asked you to describe the current state of Denver's culinary climate, what would you say? Red-hot. We finally have a bunch of young guys and gals willing to hang their junk out there and do some really cool shit. For so many years, it was a dozen of us doing everything in Denver, but now we have so many more awesomely talented and driven folks doing some really amazing things. We still have our share of wannabe restaurateurs that think they're inventing restaurants, aka Thomas Keller and Danny-Fucking-Meyer rolled into one, to whom I say: Call me when you're open for ten years and then we'll talk about how successful your restaurant is. Denver, you're on a restaurant roll -- stay classy, stay humble and stay hungry.
What don't people know about you that you wish they did? I'm left-handed...and damn proud of it.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you? Breakfast with my wife and daughter. Given how much time this business requires, I have to make quality time with them, or I'll loose my mind.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be? Superhuman vision. I have god-awful eyesight, and it would be pretty great to turn that around.
What's the most positive trend in food, wine, cocktails or beer that you've noticed in Denver over the past year? The further pursuit of all things "craft." We're watching the building of a solid community of entrepreneurs dedicated to well-crafted consumables, and that's having a great effect on the quality of food and drink in this town.
Who's the one person to watch right now in the Denver dining scene? Kelly Whitaker, the chef-owner of Pizzeria Basta, is a good dude, and I'm stoked to see what he does with Cart Driver, the new restaurant he's opening on Larimer.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality? I don't know...maybe an onion. There are lots of layers, and if you're not careful, I'll make you cry. I'm joking, but seriously, I have no idea. I generally try not to anthropomorphize my food; that's messed up.
If someone asked you to describe the current state of Denver's culinary climate, what would you say? The dining scene here is solidly adolescent and trying to figure out what it is on its own. We're moving beyond a place where we're imitating more established dining cities. We're trying to create our own identity, and I think that's a great place for Denver to be; we're showing positive signs of becoming something unique.
Noah Stephens Vert Kitchen See also: In the kitchen with Noah Stephens: The Vert Kitchen BLT
What don't people know about you that you wish they did? I wish people knew that Denver updated their liquor laws and we were able to get a liquor license this year. We have great old-world wines and Colorado craft beers. We also have breakfast cocktails with our weekend brunch.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you? My trash-can-sized iced coffee from a global coffee empire.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be? I'd love to be able to fly. I've always loved traveling, experiencing new places, people and food, and having my own set of wings would allow me to travel further, and faster without the TSA.
What's the most positive trend in food, wine, cocktails or beer that you've noticed in Denver over the past year? The restaurant-and-bar boom on South Broadway, which just continues to get better.
Who's the one person to watch right now in the Denver dining scene? I want to see what Max MacKissock does next.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality? Basil. It smells good.
If someone asked you to describe the current state of Denver's culinary climate, what would you say? It's still growing and getting better all the time.
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.