The woman whooshed through the doors and out into the snow, the words tumbling out of her mouth faster than a Ferrari flying down a stretch of straight asphalt. She was from San Francisco, a tourist, the perfect display of a catwalk model — faultless makeup, Pilates calves and a Barbie-doll waistline — and she had just spent the last few hours lunching with a friend at Panzano, the restaurant attached to the Hotel Monaco. "Don't you think the transformation is stunning?" she coaxed her companion, who nodded appreciatively. "No, really, don't you think it's gorgeous? I want one of those chandeliers — the red one — and the carpet? That's genius!"
Panzano's makeover had been unveiled just a week before, and already people were rhapsodizing about the new look.
Despite a flat economy, the National Restaurant Association predicts that Colorado will post the strongest sales growth in the country this year: 2.9 percent, with 2010 industry sales of $8.7 billion. New restaurants are opening monthly, if not weekly, in and around Denver, and older restaurants, recognizing that they need to keep up with the competition, are doing high-speed facelifts. Restaurants like Panzano, for example, which closed on January 14 for a remodel that took all of fourteen days.
"I was worried," admits executive chef Elise Wiggins, "worried about the whole out-of-sight, out-of-mind thing, but on the first night that we reopened, we did more than 200 covers, and I was tickled pink." She leans back and grins. "The community really owns this restaurant," she says, sweeping her arms across the dining room, "and when a bunch of our regulars come in and give it their okay — their thumbs up — that right there is all the testament I need to know that we got it right."
Wiggins was working in Memphis in April 2004, when she got the courting call from the Kimpton Group to head the kitchen of Panzano, the Italian restaurant that had soared to prominence under Jennifer Jasinski, now the chef/co-owner of Rioja and Bistro Vendôme. "Coming into Panzano right behind Jen and her thigh-high boots wasn't easy," confesses Wiggins. "It was tough, because for months, even years, there was always this hard-core, relentless comparison between me and Jen that came from the staff and the customers, and it was frustrating, because for the most part, people don't like change — and I was change."
But over the past six years, Wiggins — like the now-eleven-year-old restaurant she oversees — has come into her own. Customers no longer ask if she's "doing Jen's food"; her early menu, which began "cautiously," Wiggins admits, has evolved into "a mix of rustic Italian and fun, contemporary spins"; and the staff, most of whom have been with her since day one, seamlessly follow her vision.
Part of her success, Wiggins suggests, is the fact that she rejects the status quo, questions conventionality and embraces the cynics. "I'm incredibly competitive," she notes. "I ask a lot of questions, and I love it when people tell me I can't do something, because you know what? I can, and, more to the point, I will." Like raising her own steers, for instance. "From the moment I started working here, I wanted to have my own cattle — my mantra is 'Waste nothing' — and four years later, I finally found some ranchers I could work with." Through her butcher, Snooky Acierno, Wiggins met Debbie and John Medved, who now raise Black Angus steer and Scottish Highlands cattle for her kitchen at their Bear Mountain Ranch in Genesee.
It took two years before Wiggins got her first steer, but the wait was worth it. "I remember getting my first test cow and thinking of all the opportunities I'd have to get creative on my menu — all the different ways I could go through 800 pounds of ground beef, 70 pounds of bones and 50 pounds of offal every two weeks," she says, then laughs.
And Wiggins, who maintains that she'd own her own ranch if she could, didn't stop there. When a call came from the Colorado Lamb Board asking which cuts of lamb she was using at Panzano, she asked her own question: Where could she procure a whole lamb? The board connected her with David and Mary Miller, owners of Triple M Bar Ranch in Manzanola, who just happen to raise — and sell — whole lambs. "I'm so impressed with the flavor of the meat, and just like with the steers, I'm using everything — everything — including the offal and bones and even the neck muscle, which I'm grilling like a skirt steak," Wiggins says.
From the start, a commitment to the local and sustainable movement was part of her plan. "It's all about the evolution," she insists.