Food News

Three Denver Chefs Move Out of Restaurants, Into New Ventures

Jenica Sounart has found her passion as a private chef.
Jenica Sounart has found her passion as a private chef. Michael Sounart
From health and safety to menu restructuring to staffing, the pandemic has changed a lot about how restaurants operate. It's also made some chefs rethink the way they share their food with the public. In Denver, three hospitality pros have pivoted, moving out of restaurants and into new ventures, finding opportunity and freedom that they hope will outlast the virus.

When the pandemic hit Los Angeles and closed the companies she worked for, Jenica Sounart returned to Denver, her hometown. Instead of searching for work at a restaurant, she decided to open her own personal chef business.

Sounart started cooking at a young age. When she was just four or five years old, she was caught making pancakes on the stove, and she lists the “nightmares” in the kitchen and “horror stories” of family meals gone wrong among the lessons that molded her as a chef. Experimentation at home turned more serious when Sounart attended Apicius culinary school in Florence, Italy, as part of her degree in restaurant management from Colorado State University. While in college, she worked her way up from dishwasher to sous chef at Fort Collins restaurant 415.

After graduating, Sounart made the move to Los Angeles to work in the Warner Bros. kitchens, which varied from fine-dining restaurants to a “glorified cafeteria for all Warner Bros. employees,” she says. “They would throw me on things, like, ‘This is the menu. You need to cook it for 300 people, and you have six hours.'” Overall, though, she loved the work and only started gigging as a private chef as a way to bring in extra money to pay for L.A. rent.
click to enlarge Steak focaccia with Gorgonzola, caramelized onion and rosemary is just an example of the food Sounart can prepare. - JENICA SOUNART
Steak focaccia with Gorgonzola, caramelized onion and rosemary is just an example of the food Sounart can prepare.
Jenica Sounart
Sounart says she almost burned down the house — or at least filled the whole kitchen with smoke — during her first interview with the private chef company. But then the owners ate her food, loved it and hired her. “I love to turn a mistake into something delicious,” she says. After securing the gig, being a private chef quickly became more appealing to Sounart than her work in restaurant kitchens.

For starters, the private chef job clicked with her outgoing personality more than she could have imagined. “It’s a combination of the front and back of the house. I cook the food I want, but I also talk to people,” she explains. She worked in the multimillion-dollar homes of the Hollywood elite and recalls thinking, “This all feels too good to be true.”

Now, Sounart offers a variety of services in Denver through her Chef Jenica website, including event services, meal prepping and private cooking classes.

For Curt Steinbecker, the former owner of Ondo’s Spanish Tapas Bar in Cherry Creek, the path to cooking outside of a restaurant kitchen was a bit different. After closing Ondo's in 2014, Steinbecker worked for Aramark as a food service director in its business dining services department. After months of unemployment during the pandemic, he started brainstorming a way to make a living through cooking again. "How can I turn this situation into an opportunity?" he recalls thinking. "What’s one way that I can make this work for me?”

Steinbecker found his answer in a loaf of focaccia. He delved into mixing and flavor development, eventually creating a bread that ferments for 36 hours. Along with the perfected bread, he also developed pizza, pasta, lasagna, salad and dessert recipes designed to be delivered directly to hungry customer's homes.

He calls the company Curt’s Table, and he runs it like a delivery service. Orders must be placed two days in advance for the pizza dough to ferment. The pizza, topped with options like arugula, bacon, blue cheese and dates or cheese and pesto, arrives par-baked, with instructions to warm the thin and crispy crust. Lasagna comes with similar easy-to-follow steps.
click to enlarge Curt's Table menu items come packed with easy-to-follow directions to finish the cooking process at home. - SOPHIE GULLET
Curt's Table menu items come packed with easy-to-follow directions to finish the cooking process at home.
Sophie Gullet
At the core of Curt’s Table is Steinbecker’s idea of a “tabler,'' someone whose favorite pastime is sitting around a table “coming together through conversation, drinks and amazing food,” he says. “I want to get a bottle of wine and talk and laugh and share. You don’t have to do this at a restaurant." Whether served at home or in settings like an Airbnb, Steinbecker hopes that his pre-prepared food can make gathering around a table easy and satisfying.

Eric Vollono is a chef who is already familiar with appealing to Airbnb guests: He served as the Airbnb brand ambassador for Colorado earlier this year, and continues to offer vacation rental services along with private chef availability for catering, weddings, cooking classes, corporate events and food styling.

Vollono’s experience in the restaurant industry spans more than two decades and includes culinary school at Johnson and Wales in Providence, Rhode Island, and jobs at numerous restaurants in Chicago and New Orleans. He moved to Denver in spring 2020 after his wife received a job offer, and he turned to private work because of the pandemic.

Vollono loves how private dining allows him to showcase the adaptability of his cooking approach. “With the amazing chefs I’ve worked for, I’ve been able to pick up a wide variety of styles," he explains. "I can do six-course tasting menus for private dinners, crawfish boils and homemade pasta classes, Korean-inspired menus, steakhouse, Southern dining and Caribbean flavors."
click to enlarge Eric Vollono specializes in his adaptability in the kitchen. - JEFF FIERBERG
Eric Vollono specializes in his adaptability in the kitchen.
Jeff Fierberg
He also takes inspiration from traveling to different countries and regions and sampling the food from different chefs. “Life as a personal chef has allowed me a freedom and creativity I didn’t have before,” he says, adding that he continues to seek opportunities to stage at restaurants as a way “to meet more people and see different styles of kitchens, food, operation and management."

He’s soon traveling to San Francisco to stage in a pair of two-star Michelin restaurants, and he’s looking to expand his network in Denver as well. “Our industry is hurting, and I’m capable,” he says. “If I can go into a kitchen and lend some helping hands and meet some talented professionals along the way, why not?”

That idea is similar to the blend of practice and innovation that Sounart finds in the kitchens of the people she cooks for. “Within the first minutes, I’m seeing their whole life," she explains. "I open their fridge and pantry and find out what kind of food they eat. I open their spice cabinet. I try to get to know them as much as I can, because everyone eats so differently.”

Sounart thrives on getting pushed out of her comfort zone, and tells stories of adapting recipes because someone’s oven was broken, or improvising with cookware. “It has always worked," she notes. "I don’t have a sous chef or a line chef or a boss. I figure it out in the moment, and that’s what makes a good personal chef. ... Also multi-tasking, hearing their story, sharing any tips I can and maybe staying and eating dessert with them.”

To learn more about private chef services from Jenica Sounart, visit chefjenica.com. For more information about Eric Vollono's offerings, visit chefericvollono.com. To order home delivery from Curt's Table, visit curts-table.com.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Claire Duncombe is a Denver-based freelance writer who covers the environment, agriculture, food, music, the arts and other subjects.
Contact: Claire Duncombe