Cafe Society

Restaurateur Leigh Sullivan on the making, evolution and success of the Denver chef clan known as The Five

It was just before 5 p.m. on Wednesday when the car dropped me off at the James Beard House, the unassuming West Village brownstone that's the former home of the legendary late American chef and cookbook author, deemed the "dean of American cookery" by the New York Times, whose quarters are now one of the most prestigious stamping grounds in the United States for visiting chefs from across the country to swagger their kitchen brilliance.

A half-dozen Denver chefs -- Matt Selby (Vesta Dipping Grill and Steuben's), Brandon Biederman (Steuben's), Paul Reilly (Encore), Jamey Fader (Big Red F Group and Lola), Enrique Socarras (Cuba Cuba) and Tyler Wiard (Elway's Cherry Creek) -- along with Bryan Dayton, co-owner of Oak at Fourteenth in Boulder and a sensational cocktail innovator, and Mark DeNittis, who owns Il Mondo Vecchio, the city's famed sausage emporium, had been invited to cook at the James Beard House as part of The Five. That's the rat pack of local chefs and culinary geniuses, now numbering eight, that's the brainchild of restaurateur Leigh Sullivan, who opened TAG and TAG | RAW BAR with her ex-husband Troy Guard, as well as the defunct Nine75, and conceived The Five concept in 2008 as a way for Denver kitchen commanders to make their mark on a national scale.

"As a third generation Coloradan, and as someone who's been in the restaurant business my entire life, I wanted to put something together that would showcase our culinary scene -- a culinary scene that rivals any other city in America," says Sullivan, whose clan of chefs, who change very year, have now graced the Beard House kitchen for four straight years. That mission was at the forefront of Sullivan's brain when she first mapped out her ambitions for The Five. "My sole goal was to have those chefs cook at the Beard House, and in 2008, the same year I put The Five together, we accomplished that."

And Sullivan, who's as ambitious as anyone in this industry, continues to catapult The Five's presence -- and prowess. "As with any idea, it kind of organically evolved into what it is today -- a nationally recognized brand that absolutely takes Colorado cuisine to the next level," she says. "It's now a brotherhood, and I really feel like we've been able to add something -- to complement what chefs like Frank Bonanno and Jennifer Jasinski have done for Denver's dining scene -- at a national level."

This year marked the fourth dinner that The Five has done as the Beard House, all of which have sold out, and next year's dinner, already on the calendar for September 19, has pre-sold thirty of the 75 allocated tickets. "I have big shit -- big, major shit -- planned for 2012," promises Sullivan. "It will be the fifth anniversary of The Five, and I'm so invigorated and excited to start planning for next year."

Sullivan, who, just a few months ago, gave up her ownership in TAG and TAG Raw Bar after she and Guard split up, says that the success of The Five (Guard, by the way, was an original member ) has made the blood, sweat and tears worth the sacrifices. "I've never been happier, and this year's dinner was the best yet," she says. "There was so much love in the kitchen, so much love on the plates, and a ton of love, too, from everyone who came to the dinner. It couldn't have been any better."

Later today, I'll post photos from the James Beard House dinner.

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Lori Midson
Contact: Lori Midson