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Rioja Celebrates Its Family Tree With Alumni Dinner Series

Jennifer Jasinski celebrates fifteen years of Rioja with four alumni chefs.
Jennifer Jasinski celebrates fifteen years of Rioja with four alumni chefs. Joni Schrantz
The kitchens of Denver's best restaurants serve as a training ground for coming generations of head chefs who move onward and upward to their own culinary achievements. And as one of the best and most acclaimed eateries in the city, Rioja has spawned more than its share of great cooks, several of whom are coming home to present a series of alumni dinners with chef Jennifer Jasinski, who founded the restaurant with Beth Gruitch back in 2004.

The series celebrates Rioja's fifteenth anniversary at 1431 Larimer Street, where Jasinski has earned plenty of her own national accolades, including Denver's first James Beard award for Best Chef: Southwest in 2013. The first dinner in the series will be presented by Jasinski and chef Carrie Baird, who worked at Rioja and Euclid Hall (also operated by Jasinski and Gruitch) for four years before rising to stardom as a top-four finisher on season 15 of Top Chef and becoming executive chef at Bar Dough. Jasinski also had her own moment in front of the camera, finishing third and earning $35,000 for her charity of choice, Work Options for Women, on Top Chef Masters in 2013. On Wednesday, January 8, Baird and Jasinski will prepare two dishes each from their Top Chef seasons. Here's a look at the menu:
Fancy toast: the best part of French onion soup, the top — Chef Carrie Baird

Kimchi marinated hiramasa, masago arare, poached kumquat — Chef Jennifer Jasinski

Paella gnocchi, New Caledonian prawns, mussels, calamari, chicken sausage, artichoke, baby heirloom tomatoes, paprika-tomato broth — Chef Jennifer Jasinski

beef tenderloin, foie gras butter, roasted root vegetables — Chef Carrie Baird

Cajeta caramel tart, hand painted chocolate, Cognac ice cream — Chef Eric Dale

Chef Merlin Verrier cooked at Rioja for two years before moving to Chicago to work for Richard Sandoval and Graham Elliot. "The Wizard" (as his colleagues call him) returned to Denver and became the culinary director for Next Door American Eatery before launching his international street food concept, Street Feud, earlier this year. One of the chef's biggest career accomplishments was cooking for Barack Obama; you'll be able to get the presidential treatment from Verrier on January 15.

click to enlarge A scene from Rioja's early days, with chef/owner Jennifer Jasinski planning a menu with chef Jorel Pierce. - COURTESY RIOJA
A scene from Rioja's early days, with chef/owner Jennifer Jasinski planning a menu with chef Jorel Pierce.
Courtesy Rioja
On January 22, chef/restaurateur Dana Rodriguez will return to Rioja, where she spent the majority of her culinary career. Rodriguez worked with Jasinski at Panzano before moving with her to open Rioja in 2004, and eventually became executive chef at Bistro Vendôme (another Jasinski/Gruitch eatery). She worked for Jasinski for seventeen years before opening her own restaurant, Work & Class, in 2014, followed by Super Mega Bien in 2018. Her accomplishments at both restaurants earned her semi-finalist status as Best Chef: Southwest by the James Beard Foundation in 2015, 2016 and 2018.

And on February 5, chef Jorel Pierce, who worked for Jasinski for thirteen years, will cook with Jasinski to wrap up the series. Pierce joined Jasinski's team straight out of culinary school at Johnson & Wales University, first at Rioja and then as opening chef at both Euclid Hall and Stoic & Genuine. Pierce is now culinary director of the TAG Restaurant Group, and joins Baird and Jasinski as Top Chef alumni.

The dinners run $95 per person (including tax and tip), or $135 with wine pairings. You can get a ticket to any or all of them on Rioja's website; call the restaurant at 303-820-2282 for more details.
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Mark Antonation is the former Westword Food & Drink Editor. In 2018, he was named Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association; he's now with the Colorado Restaurant Foundation.
Contact: Mark Antonation