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 Mark DeNittis, Jenna Johansen, Alex Seidel and Jim Pittenger; watch for more installments over the next several days, and don't miss part one, part two, part three and part four of our DISH chef series, all of which appeared earlier this week.
Mark DeNittis Rocky Mountain Institute of Meat and Sysco Foods See also: Whole hog hoedown with Il Mondo Vecchio's Mark DeNittis: the piggy food porn
What don't people know about you that you wish they did? I'm absolutely horrible at sports. When I played Little League, I hit the ball (one of two times in my entire baseball career) for a line drive (I think that's what it's called). I was thrilled, ran as fast as I could and decided to really show off and slide into first base. All my teammates were like "Dude! You can't slide into first!" I was like, "WTF? Why can't I slide into first? Are you kidding me? People slide into all the other bases, so why the hell can't I slide into first base?" That seemed like the stupidest thing I'd ever heard in my life and likely why I sometimes make my own rules...and question authority and rule makers. To this day, I still don't understand the first-base rule -- but more to the point, I don't care. I'll slide into first base no matter what folks think.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you? Coffee, a quick prayer and my daily horoscope.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be? I've always liked Nightcrawler from the X-Men. "A mutant, Nightcrawler possesses superhuman agility, the ability to teleport across short or long distances in a puff of crimson red smoke, invisibility in deep shadows, and adhesive hands and feet. His physical mutations include indigo colored skin, two-toed feet and three-fingered hands, yellow eyes, pointed ears, and a prehensile tail. In Nightcrawler's earlier comic book appearances he is depicted as being a happy-go-lucky practical joker and teaser, and a fan of swashbuckling fiction. Nightcrawler is a Roman Catholic and while this is not emphasized as much in his earlier comic book appearances, in later depictions Nightcrawler is more vocal about his faith"-- quoted from Wikipedia. I also used to wrap duct tape -- sticky side out -- around my hands to attempt to scale the walls of my bedroom when I was a kid.
What's the most positive trend in food, wine, cocktails or beer that you've noticed in Denver over the past year? The return to sincere culinary roots, be it in-house butchering, salumi and charcuterie, pickling and fermenting or gardening. I also love that people are educating themselves to do all of this properly, whether they're self-taught or going through traditional academia. I think this is something we'll see as a trend in the coming years.
Who's the one person to watch right now in the Denver dining scene? I've observed Justin Brunson from afar for many years, but more recently, I've had the pleasure of working with him on some in-house projects at Old Major as well as the Denver Bacon Company. He's sincere in his efforts to do things correctly -- and not just from a menu standpoint. His efforts to work with local authorities on his in-house, dry-curing program, as well other aspects, is really nice to see. He continues to grow as a culinary professional, specifically delving into the manufacturing world of food, and I feel like he's embracing it and cultivating that within himself and his endeavors.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality? Jug wine, specifically Carlo Rossi wine, Gallo Family Burgundy or Almaden Mountain Chablis. They're known to be rough around the edges and unrefined -- oenophiles will likely turn their noses up at the mere thought of drinking them -- yet they get the job done (and then some) if treated properly. Whether you're sipping those wines on a warm weekend, or braising, stewing or curing items like bresaola, it's the process and manner in which the ingredients are handled and treated that accomplish the end result. At the end of the day, it's about the ability to manipulate and adapt your ingredients to create something incredibly delicious.
If someone asked you to describe the current state of Denver's culinary climate, what would you say? It's good and continues to develop, but there's still a fair amount of growth ahead. Still, it's nice to see Denver being lauded as a primary city, and the recent exposure we've had on the Food Network and Bravo has brought some great national attention to Denver. I'm excited about young and old chefs doing solid and sincere food.
Jenna Johansen Epicurean Catering See also: Jenna Johansen talks frankly about her boot from Around the World in 80 Plates
What don't people know about you that you wish they did? I'm nice...to a fault. People who only know me from TV think I'm bossy and maybe an over-pronouncer of foreign languages, but those who really know me will tell you that couldn't be further from the truth (I don't over pronounce; I try to speak the language correctly). I can be bossy, just like any good, strong chef is when push comes to shove and you want to get the job done, but in my real life, outside of TV editing, I'm pretty nice and very easygoing in the kitchen.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you? When Mark DeNittis and I got married, one of my gifts was a bell, which, when rung, will get me coffee delivered in bed, for life. I need a hot cup of French-press coffee first thing in the morning, preferably with my husband. I don't sleep very much and that caffeine is something I really, really need.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be? I actually play this game quite often now that I have step kids. We love to ask random people this question, and the answers are always great. My current superpower of choice would be mind erasing. Upon locking eyes, I can erase your memory and get you to believe -- or forget -- whatever I want. My superhero name is currently "Ginger."
What's the most positive trend in food, wine, cocktails or beer that you've noticed in Denver over the past year? I've loved watching some of the little guys flourish, and I love seeing hard-working chefs fulfill their dream of opening a place and seeing it thrive because of their work ethic, dedication and great food. Iain Chisholm at Amerigo Delicatus, for example, is working every day in a restaurant that he built with his own hands, and it's spots like these that I love to see recognized rather than slip through the cracks, and I think we're seeing more of that success.
Who's the one person to watch right now in the Denver dining scene? It goes without saying that most people with taste buds in Denver are waiting to see what Max MacKissock will be doing once he's in a new kitchen that's 100 percent his.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality? Butter. It's tasty, friendly, simple and classic. And butter makes almost everything better.
If someone asked you to describe the current state of Denver's culinary climate, what would you say? We've been saying for years that Denver is growing, attracting new blood and supporting independent restaurateurs. But Denver diners are so fickle, and while there are tons of great independent restaurants, the big-box places are packed every night. I'd love to say that I get it, but I just don't. I'm certain that people are spending more money in restaurants, but I definitely have no idea what drives some of their choices. When you can eat at a restaurant like twelve, why would you even consider going to a Cracker Barrel?
What don't people know about you that you wish they did? My friends and family know everything about me; I'm very open with people who I interact with regularly. People should know that I'm actually quite shy and it can take some time for me to get to know them, but if there's something you don't know about me, there's probably a reason for that.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you? Rituals for me are like habits. The less I have, the better, but a diet Mountain Dew in the morning sure is satisfying.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be? I wish I had a magical tool belt so that every time something broke at either the restaurant or farm, I could pull out a tool and direct its energy toward the broken item and it would magically be fixed, minus labor cost and trip charges. At the current rate, I'd be wearing the tool belt every day.
What's the most positive trend in food, wine, cocktails or beer that you've noticed in Denver over the past year? People in Denver aren't just cooking food, pouring wine and mixing cocktails. So many like-minded thinkers within our community have a desire to understand what it takes to grow, produce, ferment, forage or create, and those desires have allowed our community to experience firsthand the quality products and knowledge passed on by these craftsmen and women. The trend says that if there are more avenues to knowledge, more people will want to learn.
Who's the one person to watch right now in the Denver dining scene? I can't name just one, since so many of my colleagues have bright ideas that will continue in the next year. I'm excited that our community has grown together and will continue to evolve through everyone's efforts.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality? A carrot. It's a little firm and a little dry on the outside with a colorful appearance, but once you roast it and bite into the middle, it has a natural sweetness and a delicate finish.
If someone asked you to describe the current state of Denver's culinary climate, what would you say? We're a city that's growing in culinary diversity, experience and quality. Every year, a great new restaurant or two will open, and we're continuing to develop local talent, while simultaneously attracting talented individuals from other parts of the country. The talent pool is growing and so is the attention of others outside of Denver.
Jim Pittenger Biker Jim's Gourmet Dogs See also: Denver's fifty most essential restaurants, No. 49: Biker Jim's Gourmet Dogs
What don't people know about you that you wish they did? During my youth, while living in California, I once enjoyed the hospitality of the United States Federal Government, during which time I read the screenplay to Star Wars about a year before the movie came out. When the movie was released, I remember thinking, "Now why do I know this kid's aunt and uncle are going to be killed and left burning?" Yeah, I'm old.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you? Coffee and heroin. Oh, wait, no, that's not it. Coffee with my wife Karen...yeah, that's it.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be? Time travel. I'd be so much wiser when I went back to fix my fuck-ups.
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What's the most positive trend in food, wine, cocktails or beer that you've noticed in Denver over the past year? Mediocre doesn't play as well as it used to. There will always be the Olive Gardens and McDonalds, but it seems that people's tastes are pushing toward the more, if not sophisticated, adventurous. It's always exciting to go somewhere new.
Who's the one person to watch right now in the Denver dining scene? Lon Symensma, the chef at ChoLon, is one of the most passionate, exacting and creative people cooking in Colorado today.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality? A lime, because I ain't playing with that scurvy shit.
If someone asked you to describe the current state of Denver's culinary climate, what would you say? Enjoy the ride. If one of our local favorites has figured out how to explode whipped cream, there really aren't any limits here.