Youth is a hallmark of Denver’s dynamic dining industry. Not only did the phenomenal rise of our restaurant and bar scene occur mainly over the past decade, but many of its emerging stars grew up right along with it. With our inaugural 30 Under 30 list, we celebrate the chefs, bartenders, entrepreneurs and other visionaries whose passion is matched only by their talent. Thanks to them, the culinary future of the Mile High City looks dazzlingly bright — and delicious.
After the hard work of picking the winners was completed, we invited our stars to Denver's red hot Session Kitchen for a fete, complete with a photo booth, cocktails and a surprise visit from our guest mentor chef Troy Guard — just for kicks. Without further ado, we present the inaugural 30 Under 30 in Denver — click on each tile to read in-depth profiles of each winner's outstanding background.
Stories by Ruth Tobias and Douglas Brown; Photos by Jeff Nelson Photography
Megan Baldwin, 29Director of Operations and Development at Edible Beats (Root Down, Linger, Vital Root)
Boston Celtics fans will appreciate restaurateur Justin Cucci’s nickname for Megan Baldwin: Rajon Rondo. “He sees me in the role of giving everything to the team,” she explains, “the glue that holds us all together.” So think of Baldwin’s job as the equivalent of Edible Beats’ point guard — “managing the managers” of the restaurant group’s smash successes Root Down and Linger while overseeing the development of upcoming vegetarian kitchen Vital Root and an as-yet-unnamed fourth project. The former political-events coordinator might spend one day meeting with general contractors, the next visiting the warehouse that contains “the crazy eBay and Craigslist finds” Cucci incorporates into his famously quirky interiors. It’s such an intense process that Baldwin says the team has become like family. “And when we open a new restaurant,” she jokes, “I’m so emotional it’s like giving birth.”
Casey Berry, 27Founder of Imbibe Denver
It wasn’t kitchen or bar work that brought Casey Berry into the culinary world — it was the hyper-social aspect of food culture. Berry, the Florida native who founded Imbibe Denver in spring 2012, loves bringing people together. That’s why he produces (or partners) events like the Denver Only Beer Festivus, the Collaboration Festival, The Big Eat and the D-Still distillers’ conference. Last year he co-founded The Passport Program, a summer-long event that promotes bars and restaurants with two-for-one specials in Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins and Brooklyn. Looking forward, he wants to stay focused on local craft brands and “keep giving our audience great opportunities to enjoy Denver.” Before launching Imbibe, “I seemed to be the go-to person for organizing outings for friends” he says. “I thought it would be fun to make a business out of those ideas.”
Rachel Best, 29Executive Chef of Leaf Vegetarian Restaurant
Having majored in International Relations, Rachel Best didn’t plan on becoming a chef. “My whole plan was to go into the Peace Corps and then work at the U.N.,” she recalls. But after spending a couple of years volunteering in Cameroon, she realized that she found local agriculture more inspiring than government. Now, the longtime vegetarian shares her love of produce at Boulder’s Leaf, which features vegan dishes like sesame-crusted beet steak and pad Thai made with either spaghetti squash or zucchini-and-carrot ribbons. Her favorite is the seared-cauliflower appetizer with feta, toasted pistachios and apricot-Fresno chile jam. Still, she’s not averse to relaxing the meatless rules a little on rare nights out with her boyfriend, a sous-chef at Brasserie Ten Ten: “I am a vegetarian,” she says, “but I’ll always eat whatever’s on his plate.”
Roger Bielz, 26Cheesemonger at The Truffle Cheese Shop
Seven years ago, when Roger Bielz started working the cheese department at Whole Foods Market, he didn’t even like cheese — particularly chèvre and anything blue. But that was then. Now he claims it makes up 90% of his diet. That doesn’t sound possible, but the Empire State native has certainly changed his mind: He just participated in the 5th Annual Cheesemonger Invitational in Long Island City, New York, and goat cheeses have become his favorites. “It has been fantastic transitioning to The Truffle,” he says of his current gig, which he started about a year ago. “We learn about how the cheese is made and where it comes from.” His current favorites include Loire Valley goat milk cheeses, which “taste to me like a rain storm,” especially Chèvre Cendre. “If there is a cheese I hear about and want to try, they bring it in,” says Bielz, who says he prefers to sample new products with salami and a glass of beer or wine.
Spencer Caine, 24Sous-Chef at twelve restaurant
Twelve chef-owner Jeff Osaka is so proud of the sous-chef at his Ballpark destination that he reached out to Caine’s mother for her two cents.We won’t embarrass him too much with her praise — but she did send a 1,000-word essay that captured in vivid detail his budding career, right down to his stint as a private chef in a skeet-shooting club at age 16. (You’ve gotta love moms.) Caine himself just likes to focus on the task at hand — one that’s getting bigger as Osaka concentrates on opening his namesake ramen joint in late summer a few blocks from twelve. Pending Osaka’s final say, twelve’s monthly menus are now largely in Caine’s hands, and he always focuses on his favorite fresh ingredients. “I love to work with all kinds of foraged mushrooms for their versatility and the different looks they can bring to the plate,” he says.“I really enjoy cooking with foie gras. And I like using fruit in dishes that need acid or sugar — like adding rhubarb and raspberries to a pork chop with smoked farro and beets.” Of course, he’s fond of Osaka too, who’s obviously a caring mentor. “He just comes in and shows you all these life hacks,” Caine laughs. “It’s nice to have him there, watching you work — sometimes!”
Ryan DiFranco, 28Owner of DiFranco’s
“Most of my family is Sicilian, and Italian food was all I ate growing up,” says Ryan DiFranco. “There was a pot of sauce on the stove twice a week.” Now he’s running his own Italian kitchen, where “some of the recipes come straight from my grandmother.” But the heavy emphasis on local, organic ingredients is all his own — and it’s the key to attracting his “savvy customers who actually care about what’s going on in the food system.” Granted, they’re lucky they can get their hands on his meatball subs or penne with prosciutto-vodka sauce at all, given the standard difficulties DiFranco had getting his venture off the ground as a young, first-time restaurateur. As he points out, “There’s no financing available to a 26-year-old with no business credentials!” Two years later, though, the success of his tiny Golden Triangle cafe is such that he could probably even get funding for his loyal customers’ own dream project.“They’re like, ‘You should open up a store that serves nothing but chicken-parm sandwiches,’” he laughs.
Kyle Dill, 25Founder of Industry Denver
In his home state of California, Kyle Dill fought blazes as a volunteer fireman. Here in Denver, he’s igniting passions as the founder of Industry Denver, an advocacy group that partners with restaurants, bars and producers to create promotional campaigns that, to date, have proven citywide sensations. Dill moved to Colorado at 22 to attend paramedic school, took a serving gig at Charlie Palmer's District Meats to pay the bills and gradually put together his ideas for a network linking food-and-beverage professionals through events like Angelshare, a 12-week extravaganza during which six local bars made cocktails featuring the spirits of six Colorado distillers on various themes, and the monthlong Tour di Negroni, whose “checkpoints” were 12 bars that poured classic and custom versions of the drink to prepare for a final competition. Both programs did so well that Dill is now in talks to take them to other cities — and looking to launch his Industry model in Seattle and San Francisco by the end of the year. Meanwhile, he’s working closely with chef and Heroes Like Us founder Jensen Cummings to produce other events that help put Denver on the national-dining map. “We’re not always the first city to be written about,” he says, “but I think you’ll start to see that shifting over the next few years, because we’ve got a lot of talent here.”
Nadine Donovan, 25Pastry Chef at Old Major
Pastries run in Nadine Donovan’s blood. “My great-grandmother owned a bakery/cafe in Wales,” she says. “My grandfather was a baker in Manchester, England, my mother was a pastry chef in Toronto — and here I am!” This spring, Westword named her the city’s best pastry chef, and she’s also a member of the locally celebrated collaborative known as the Denver FIVE, with whom she’ll be cooking at the James Beard House in September. For that Colorado-centric gala dinner, she’s preparing a twist on peaches and cream with puffed quinoa, which reflects her overall focus on “elevated classics” like baked Alaska with olive-oil cake and blood-orange semifreddo — “I love lighting something frozen on fire,” she laughs. But it’s baking bread that really soothes her soul: “With just a few simple ingredients, you can create something that’s so hearty and beautiful and can feed so many people. I make probably 10 different kinds here at the restaurant right now, and the rustic, hard-crusted types are my favorite.” If that sounds modest, she was influenced by the local chefs she worked for. “Both Bob Blair [of Fuel Cafe] and Justin [Brunson of Old Major] have taught me that it’s not about the press or the ego,” she says. “It’s about the experience you’re going to give someone.”
Bess Dougherty, 28Assistant Brewer at Wynkoop Brewing Company
“I wouldn’t be content with life if I weren’t making beer!” exclaims Bess Dougherty, a born-and-bred Denverite who began “home brewing with the boys” at 21, not long after landing a job in a liquor store. When a trip to Belgium further “lit the fire,” she enrolled in a brewing-technology course that led to a stage with Andy Brown, veteran brewmaster at pioneering LoDo pub Wynkoop. “He and I just hit it off,” she explains. Now she’s his right-hand woman, with all kinds of diverse projects on her agenda. For instance, she says, “Right now I’m working with a local music promoter in Denver so that bands coming through town can come take tours of Wynkoop.” But brewing’s where her heart is, whether she’s tossing gummi bears and thyme into a firkin, prepping a batch of “my little baby, gingerbread stout,” or collaborating with other female brewers on, say, a Belgian-style dry-hopped brown ale. “If there’s something weird going at Wynkoop, it’s probably me,” she says with a laugh, “and I’m ok with that.”
Melissa Durant, 26Bartender at Acorn
Durant credits the crew at Frank Bonanno’s LoDo speakeasy Green Russell with the bartending education that’s made her a success on the competition circuit. Case in point: Following her win in a Patrón tequila showcase, she’s headed to Mexico on a prize tour of the distillery early next year. But as she sees it, her greatest career triumph so far has been the simple opportunity to land a cocktail on the list at the nationally celebrated Acorn in RiNo, where she now works alongside renowned partner-beverage director Bryan Dayton. “I called it The Dayton Day Spa just to mess with him a little bit. It had aloe and watermelon, and he hated it,” she laughs. Lately the Fresno, California, native has been toying with tiki, including what she calls a “backwards mai tai that’s bitters-based with a float of rum.” Sounds like a perfect pour for the poolside — which is where you’ll find her when she’s not behind the bar or kicking it off-duty at the Hi Dive.
Bill Espiricueta, 29Executive Sous-Chef of OAK at fourteenth
A mandatory high-school cooking class kick-started Bill Espiricueta’s career, which in turn took him from his home in Missouri to Illinois to Texas to Boulder, where he now works as executive sous-chef at OAK at Fourteenth. While snowboarding and mountain biking drew Espiricueta to Colorado, OAK keeps him here. “I find peace on a Saturday night, with the ticket machine just rolling and rolling,” said Espiricueta, who has also worked at Nobu Dallas and Bluestem in Kansas City, alongside James Beard-winning chef Colby Garrelts. “I love the flow, the quality of service with no mistakes,” he says. “I have worked in slow restaurants, and it’s the worst. I live for working in high-pressure, ambitious, busy restaurants — like OAK.” Both the Midwest barbecue he grew up with and his stint at Nobu have influenced his culinary crushes: smoking and Japanese cuisine. These passions work well with the OAK menu, which delves into Asian flavors and relies heavily on a wood-fired oven.
Alexandra Geppert, 29Bartender, Operations and Marketing at Star Bar
As the creative director for the Colorado Bartenders’ Guild, Alexandra Geppert works to bring specialists from all over the profession into the fold: “Speed bartenders, flair bartenders — we want it to be a source for everybody.” It’s a goal born of experience. When Geppert herself started bartending in college, “I knew how to make a Jägerbomb, basically.” And though she went on to immerse herself in the craft-cocktail scene while working at Root Down — “I knew I was in trouble when I saw more books than bottles behind the bar,” she laughs — she remains committed to the ideal of inclusiveness, which makes her current job at Ballpark’s beloved Star Bar easy. “If you want to hear about every detail of our program, we can bore you to tears. But we’re really just about the guests having fun, taking away from their troubles,” she explains, whether by pouring Brooklyns “for whiskey drinkers that never liked Manhattans” or offering partyers watermelon-chile boozecicles on the back patio. As Star Bar expands, Geppert is taking on an ever-larger role behind the scenes even as she continues to work with the Guild and builds her own marketing company. The extra responsibility doesn’t change her outlook one bit. “I’ve always loved people, talking with them, being social,” she says. “This industry was just a natural fit.”
James Howat and Sarah Howat, 28 and 29Founders of Former Future Brewing Company
“Divide and conquer, right?” laughs Sarah Howat of the separate roles she and her husband, James, play at their Platt Park hit, Former Future. As head brewer, James relies on both his fascination with history and his training as a former science teacher to build beers on the twin foundations of tradition and innovation — be it his signature salted porter or his Singularity Principle series: Each release showcases a single malt and hop variety. All his mad tinkering serves the couple’s shared vision, however. “In early America, the local pub was the place people would meet — if there wasn’t a church in town, they’d have church services in the pub,” James says. “We’ve always wanted to have a real community-focused place.” That’s where Sarah comes in — not only to manage the bar but to coordinate outreach efforts like the membership program, the success of which has exceeded even her expectations. “One thing that’s surprised me is how diverse this neighborhood is,” she says. “Any given Saturday, we have people who just turned 21 and 70-year-old couples, people who come with their kids and bring the dogs. It’s awesome.”
McLain Hedges and Mary Allison Wright, 28 and 29Owners of The Proper Pour
McLain Hedges and Mary Allison Wright grew up in Tennessee, enchanted by food, booze and music. Eventually, these passions blossomed into careers. Their interest in music took them around the country to promote bands, whose tours eventually drew them back to Denver for more than a quick stop. “Every time we came back to Denver, we stayed longer and longer,” Hedges says. “We fell in love with the city and said, ‘Why are we out here for a month, and not living here?’” He quickly landed a bartending gig at Fuel, the restaurant and bar in RiNo’s Taxi development, and Wright found work in a South Denver wine shop. When Taxi’s Kyle Zeppelin asked them if they wanted to be part of The Source, his planned foodie emporium, Hedges and Wright didn’t hesitate. They opened The Proper Pour, a highly curated bottle shop, and are preparing to open The RiNo Yacht Club, a bar that will sit in the middle of the sprawling space. “With the Yacht Club, we’re having fun with social and drinking cultures around the world,” he says. “The list will comprise a lot of fun drinks, apéritif-style and low alcohol, as well as the boozier stuff. In Spain people love gin and tonics and sherry. In London, it’s the Pimm’s Cup.” The Source’s Acorn restaurant will handle the bar food, with small plates trundled out on devices like dim sum carts. The couple still shares their passions: Hedges runs The Proper Pour; Wright runs the Yacht Club; McLain is spirits advisor.
Carlin Karr, 28Sommelier at Frasca Food and Wine
Carlin Karr graduated from the University of Colorado Boulder with a degree in communications but her passion was always for food. Culinary school in San Francisco didn’t work out, but while there the Phoenix native discovered the pleasures of wine — and dropped out to immerse herself in the study of enology. Eventually she got a gig helping to launch the Michelin-starred Sons and Daughters restaurant in Nob Hill. And then in June of 2012, she landed a coveted sommelier job at Frasca Food and Wine, the James Beard Award-winning temple to wine on Boulder’s Pearl Street. “Frasca understands the great marriage of knowledge and warmth,” Karr explains. Having passed her Advanced Sommelier exam in one try — a feat in itself — she’s now studying for the daunting Master Sommelier test. “It’s not just about knowing everything about wine, but doing what is best for the guest and taking them on a journey.”
Matt Lewis, 28Executive Sous-Chef at Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar Glendale
Matt Lewis got his first taste of culinary success in high school in Cheyenne, Wyoming, winning back-to-back state cooking competitions. Bolstered by “a lot of practice, a lot of hard work” and a degree from Johnson & Wales, he’s been turning his passion into a career ever since. As he moved up from the prep- and line-cook stints of his youth to a chef position under Frank Bonanno at Bones, he became particularly fascinated with Asian cuisine. “When you’re classically trained, you learn braising, roasting, stewing, all that stuff,” he says. “But when you add Asian ingredients to the mix, you can create something new and special.” Now, as executive sous-chef at the Glendale branch of Jax, he’s honing his fish-butchery skills. “The amount we break down every day — 40-pound halibuts, 50-pound big-eye tunas — is incredible,” he says. And at the end of a 12- or 14-hour day in the kitchen, it’s the creative breakthroughs that continue to sustain Lewis, like the “umami mushrooms” he adds to seared tuna over chilled soba noodles, based on “an amazing accident” of experimentation with marinated king trumpets. “Working with people like Bonanno and [Jax executive chef Sheila] Lucero makes me strive to get to where they are,” he explains. “A lot of chefs burn out at some point, but I haven’t lost that fire.”
John Little, 28Chef at Harman’s eat & drink
John Little has worked at luxury resorts like Tennessee’s Blackberry Farm and The Little Nell in Aspen but he laughs that “Cherry Creek is a whole different animal.” In a neighborhood where diets are status symbols, it can be quite an undertaking to accommodate everyone, “do it with integrity and still have fun,” he says. “But it’s a challenge I enjoy.” It helps that owner Mark Fischer “gives us free rein as long as we’re sourcing responsibly and seasonally,” leaving Little to turn out plates of house-cured lardo with strawberries and pickled rhubarb — to name one of his own favorite dishes — or bowls of cianfotta, a vegetable stew laced with Parmesan and pesto, to name one of ours. Meanwhile, the Maryland-born chef has been making a splash with a pet project he calls Unsung Heroes, a dinner series designed to showcase the talents of his up-and-coming peers. “There’s so much going in Denver that it’s kind of a game for traffic,” he says. “This is a way to get so many awesome people networking and inspiring each other.” It’s that kind of initiative, coupled with conscientiousness — all the proceeds from the events go to charity — that shows Little is going places. Well, that and the English-pea falafel with coriander yogurt.
Jenni Lyons and Mike Burns, Both 28Founders of Happy Leaf Kombucha
Jenni Lyons and Mike Burns never intended to become kombucha evangelists. But Lyons’ involvement in health and nutrition as a holistic health coach, combined with Mike’s background in brewing beer, led them to create Happy Leaf Kombucha. They also run a busy kombucha taproom, and they plan to open a restaurant with an emphasis on fermentation, serving things like pickles, kimchi, fermented salsa, sauerkraut and much more. “It’s interesting to see something growing — it’s life,” Lyons says about the fermentation process. “It’s a passion for me, especially the aspect of changing people’s lives and making them healthier.” Lyons had made kombucha on her own, before she met Burns, but he used his brewing background to help her turn her hobby into a business. After 18 months of practice and preparation, they sold their first bottles of kombucha at farmer’s markets and stores, and five months ago they opened the taproom, with flavors like hibiscus, lemon and ginger, and cranberry lavender, as well as seasonal choices like prickly pear and hops, strawberry basil and Palisade peach in August. “It’s like an open canvas,” Burns says. ”Any kind of fruit, botanical, vegetable or spice — I can find a way to incorporate that into kombucha.” “We probably do two or three new flavors every week.”
James Menkal, 29Bar Manager at Central Bistro & Bar
James Menkal has come full circle. Leaving Denver in 2007 to find his calling, the “local boy at heart” tried his hand at everything from cater-waiter gigs in New York City — where he became enthralled with destination bars like PDT, Milk & Honey and Apothéke — to the “hard-core” life of a barista in coffee-crazed San Francisco. But it wasn’t until he got to Houston that the craft-bartending bug bit him. When the staff of the Queen Vic Pub & Kitchen “took me under their wing,” he says, “I learned how to do all the stuff I saw in New York,” and eventually began writing the cocktail menu. At Anvil Bar & Refuge, he got comfortable with juggling large crowds: “I’d be making five or six cocktails at a time, but they still had to come out perfectly.” Finally, it was time to prove himself back home. So upon returning a couple of years ago, he took his résumé into Central “on a whim,” landing a server position to show that “I knew what I was talking about” before moving behind the bar. Today, as bar manager, the passionate whiskey devotee oversees the LoHi eatery’s much-touted 170-bottle list, hosts paired dinners and above all takes pride in sharing “the story behind the spirit.” In fact, his dream now is to open up his own bar or even work in a distillery. On a recent tour of Kentucky’s Four Roses, he asked to compare tasting notes with master distiller Jim Rutledge only to discover that “we had our favorites in the same exact order. It made me feel so good.”
Amber Otis, 26Pastry Chef at Luca Restaurant Group
Growing up in an Army family, Amber Otis got into the habit of bouncing around a bit. After culinary school in Philadelphia, where she studied baking and pastry arts, Otis went to work for the Starr Restaurant Group, which owns the steakhouse Barclay Prime. She spent three years there under pastry virtuoso Frank Urso, who “taught me most of what I know,” Otis says, about plated desserts and specialty ice creams. In 2010, she helped open 1862 with chef Martin Hamann. Then she grew hungry for new challenges, so she moved to Aberdeen, North Carolina, where she worked under Martin Brunner, an accomplished Austrian pastry chef at The Bakehouse. A gig at Trillium, under chef Ryan Leinonen, brought her to Denver. And now, her work with Mary Nguyen has her exploring everything from gluten-free baked goods to creations like salted chocolate-cashew pie with bacon ice cream and bourbon crème anglaise. “I like to play around,” she says, “but at the same time, I’m drawn to a homey, comfort-food approach — I want people to eat my desserts and think of their mom.”
Cindhura Reddy, 28Chef de Cuisine at Spuntino
Cindhura Reddy grew up cooking alongside her Indian-born parents in Cleveland, Ohio. Her first job was at Zahav in Philadelphia, Michael Solomonov’s acclaimed modern Israeli restaurant. And for her honeymoon, she and her new spouse spent nine months in 2011-2012 on a backpacking journey that took them from Southeast Asia to Europe. In short, Reddy has developed a culinary outlook that’s global beyond her years. Now she’s putting her global knowledge into practice under Spuntino pastry chef-owner Yasmin Lozada-Hissom, herself a Venezuelan who spent her formative years in Peru. “Yasmin is completely open to exploring,” Reddy says. “Though this is technically an Italian restaurant, I can bring in cauliflower with turmeric or add chile threads to bruschetta.” The dish Reddy is proudest of creating so far is coniglio con aglio, or braised rabbit leg atop gremolata polenta with wilted dandelion greens — partly because the name reminds her of the farming family she lived with in Italy, who taught her the near-tongue twister, and partly because she enjoys “working with more unconventional meats.” Eventually, she hopes to open her own restaurant with her husband, who happens to be Spuntino’s general manager. “At this point, I still feel too young to be nailing down a concept,” she says, “but whatever we do will definitely have an Asian influence — I love to eat everything!”
Chris Royster, 24Chef de Cuisine at Flagstaff House
Chris Royster’s career began, as those of so many cooks do, washing dishes. A high school gig in Royster’s hometown of Hyde Park, NY, eventually turned into a cooking job at the same place, and within a little more than two years Royster and his brother had become the restaurant’s co-executive chefs — all of this before Royster even turned 18. He moved to Colorado for the usual reasons — mountains, sun — and got a gig with Louisville’s Zucca Italian Ristorante and then its sister restaurant, the Huckleberry, where he served as executive chef. Now Royster is chef de cuisine at Flagstaff House, a temple of wine and fine food, with jaw-dropping views of Boulder and the plains. “We rewrite the menu every day and we can do whatever we want, whenever we want,” Royster says. “I love the bounty from Colorado farms we tap into — the beef, the poultry, the produce from Cure Farms in Boulder. The apples I eat in Colorado are perfect all the time, which is hard for me to say, coming from New York.”
Amy Sayles, 28Pastry Chef at Panzano
These days, emphasizing local market ingredients is an industry cliché. But Amy Sayles, an Orange County, California, native, comes by her love of fresh produce as naturally as any chef can. “My dad installs and maintains organic gardens,” she says, “so I’ve always eaten that way.” Arriving at Panzano in early 2013 with classical French training from Le Cordon Bleu at the Scottsdale Culinary Institute, she promptly set about building a seasonal dessert program to complement chef Elise Wiggins’ modern Italian repertoire, even doing research in Italian rather than English for the sake of authenticity. And though she admits to thinking too far outside the box on occasion, she credits Wiggins with “helping me strike a balance between originality and approachability” — an approach that has yielded hits like apple crostata with cranberry-lime mousse and pistachio-flour cannoli filled with orange-ricotta mousse over raspberry-rhubarb compote. In Sayles’ downtime, you might find her at Olive & Finch — “I probably eat there twice a week” — if you can find her at all. “I’m a homebody,” she admits. “I knit like an old lady; I don’t even care. It’s my guilty pleasure” — a way to decompress before this year’s crop of Palisade peaches, cherries and apricots has her back in the kitchen.
Gregory Schesser, 26Sous-Chef at Lower48 Kitchen
At 26, local-boy-done-good Greg Schesser has already built up a résumé that chefs twice his age would kill for. In 2010, the freshly minted Culinary Institute of America graduate started as a pasta cook at Frasca Food and Wine “based on my attitude more than my experience,” he says. But his skills impressed then chef de cuisine Brian Lockwood enough to help Schesser nab a staging gig at The French Laundry in Yountville, California, one that led to a permanent position as butcher. Working at one of the world’s most-famous restaurants meant dealing with a level of stress Schesser had never experienced before: “You don’t have the option of not having a good day there,” he says. “And every day the menu changes, so you’re never complacent, you’re never comfortable.” The experience of working under Thomas Keller proved profound, though, and he still might be there had he not suffered a back injury serious enough to bring him home for recovery. “But everything happens for a reason,” he figures, and soon the opportunity arose to join his friend and former Frasca colleague Alex Figura, as well as Figura’s partner, Mario Nocifera, at the brilliant Lower48 Kitchen — where, it turns out, complacency isn’t an option, either. “We’re creating a culture here,” Schesser explains. “We go over the menu with the chefs de partie every morning and try to change five or six items every week; we don’t want it just to be Alex and me figuring out what to do with this beautiful baby fennel that just came in from whatever farm. This restaurant is all of our blood, sweat and tears.”
Ryan Schmitt, 27Executive Pastry Chef at the Four Seasons Hotel Denver
Anyone who moves from Los Angeles to Denver can expect a serious attitude adjustment. But “it was all the altitude adjustment” that surprised Ryan Schmitt four months ago, when he was promoted from assistant pastry chef at the legendary Beverly Wilshire to the head of the pastry program at the Four Seasons’ Downtown Denver property. The Le Cordon Bleu graduate, who has also worked at luxury destinations like the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City and The London West Hollywood, was more than up to the task of a few recipe revisions for the Mile High City. In addition to executing the dessert menu for EDGE Restaurant & Bar, he oversees production for banquets and weddings, including cakes as well as amenities like housemade bonbons and truffles. For inspiration, he turns to French masters like Stéphane Leroux. “Getting into that kind of sugar and chocolate work is always a thrill,” he says. But even simple chocolate chip cookies can make his day. After all, the memory of baking pies with his mother as a child is as vivid as any he retains from his formal training. Even then, he says, he thought, “Yeah, I could do this.”
Alaina Silva, 26Manager at Stoic & Genuine
“Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve been like the Energizer bunny,” says trained chef and manager extraordinaire Alaina Silva by way of explaining the enthusiasm she brings to her job at Jennifer Jasinski and Beth Gruitch’s instant smash seafood hit Stoic & Genuine. Her journey from the back to the front of the house started in Berkeley, California, where “Alice Waters was my idol” — but a culinary-study trip to India became a nine-month “period of reflection” during which she realized that “while I loved cooking, what I really loved first and foremost was talking to people, being active in my community and trying to make a difference,” she says. “And that’s what the hospitality industry is.” After a couple of years working closely with the manager at Jasinski and Gruitch’s LoDo flagship, Rioja, she dove headlong into the preparations for S&G, helping Gruitch build the beverage program and train the staff while overseeing the books, a task she also loves: “It’s in the numbers, on the paper, that you step back from the floor and see all the trends you felt instinctively.” Clearly, her famous mentors had what she calls a similar “gut feeling” about her when they promoted her to such a high-profile position at one of the year’s most-anticipated openings. Now, she says, “seeing all this hard work come to fruition” is the thrill of a lifetime.
Ryan Walker, 25Pastry Chef at Guard and Grace
Ryan Walker is no stranger to hard work. The Vail native has done everything from “making bread at 2 AM at a bakery up in the mountains” to cooking breakfast for the Nuggets in the team’s locker-room lounge at the crack of dawn. So he’s well-suited to the pace at Downtown steakhouse Guard and Grace, where he’s in charge of creating plated desserts for both the dining room and off-site events, baking hundreds of potato rolls and chocolate chip cookies a day, and even turning out the occasional birthday cake. The deceptive simplicity of his work — take the butterscotch tart we named one of the year’s best dishes so far — is a hallmark of his style; as he puts it, “I’ve had a lot of aha moments while spinning off of old ideas and recipes.” Meanwhile, as if he didn’t have enough to do, he’s also trying to convince chef-owner Troy Guard to invest in an ice cream machine. “I went on a cruise ship when I was a kid that had soft-serve ice cream and I was like, ‘This is awesome!’” Walker remembers, “It’s one thing I really like to make from scratch.” After all, it was when he joined Guard at his bustling Larimer Square flagship, TAG, that Walker learned that hard work means nothing without proper preparation. “If you’re not prepared, you get screwed,” he says frankly. So, despite his age, he’s already thinking about the possibility of opening a restaurant with his twin brother, who’s also a chef.
Andrea Wight, 28Pastry Chef at beast + bottle
Andrea Wight worked in kitchens for years before pastries captured her imagination. Now that she’s the pastry chef at the acclaimed beast + bottle in the Uptown neighborhood, they dominate it. The Upstate New York native loved cooking as a kid, and graduated from Penn State University with a degree in hospitality management, then got a master’s degree, with a focus on food product development. But instead of taking a corporate job where she could develop the latest potato chip, ice cream or frozen dinner, she worked as a chef in the Virgin Islands. In the off-seasons — summers — she worked in a bed and breakfast in Montana, and visited Denver enough to decide she wanted to move to the Mile High City. She got a job at Venue in the Highlands, making savory dishes in the evening but sometimes worked the Monday pastry shift, where she found her calling. At Vesta Dipping Grill, she met chef Paul Reilly, who asked her to join his new beast + bottle as pastry chef. Wight makes desserts the ways most chefs make food — with an emphasis on ingredients, from caramel to croissants. “I like seeing something that takes a lot of technique to make,” she says, “that takes a lot of time and steps.”
Kelly Wooldridge, 29Wine Director, Bonanno Concepts
If Frank Bonanno is the hardest-working chef in Denver, then it stands to reason that his team must be as industrious as they come. That’s certainly true of wine director Kelly Wooldridge — who, at 29, has already devoted half his life to the restaurant business. He graduated culinary school, worked everywhere from Kansas City, Missouri’s famed American Restaurant to Boston’s Gaslight Brasserie du Coin, and passed the Court of Master Sommeliers’ Advanced exam on his first try, an unusual feat. He now oversees the wine programs at all of Bonanno’s eateries to various degrees, with an emphasis on staff education concerning “everything from the mechanics of opening a bottle to the differences between Nuits-Saint-Georges and Gevrey-Chambertin.” Speaking of French regions, he’s got big plans for Bonanno’s flagship, Mizuna.“We recently came to this aha moment about the fact that there’s no longer a place for great French wine in Denver,” he says. “So in the coming weeks, Mizuna will attempt to be that restaurant.” Overhauling the cellar at one of the city’s premier dining destinations is a major undertaking, but it exemplifies what Wooldridge loves about his job. “Many chef-owners view their sommeliers with a certain level of distrust; Frank isn't like that,” he points out. “So I'm pretty lucky to be able to work hard on fun things that hopefully push the envelope and add new voices to Denver's wine conversation. That’s what keeps me hungry.”
Matthew Vawter, 28Chef/Operating Partner at Mercantile Dining & Provision
Colorado native Matt Vawter has been a behind-the-scenes fixture at Fruition, Alex Seidel’s famed Country Club hub of seasonal contemporary cuisine, since 2007; intricate dishes like heirloom-tomato-and-fried-eggplant salad with housemade ricotta and toasted pine-nut emulsion or crab-panna cotta cannelloni in melon consommé are now his signature. But in late summer, he’ll bid farewell to his longtime home base and, in his words, “come into my own” as Seidel’s partner in the much-buzzed-about Union Station restaurant-market hybrid Mercantile Dining & Provision. While Seidel notes that “he’s certainly earned his owner’s share in the restaurant,” Vawter admits that “I’m going to miss Fruition a lot — it’s like handing off a baby. But the biggest lesson Alex has taught me is to never doubt myself on what I can accomplish.” To that end, he’s been working overtime to perfect everything from pastries — “we want to serve the best croissants in Denver” — to jarred pickles and preserves, all while gearing up to run a far-bigger kitchen than the notoriously tight quarters he’s leaving behind. If such responsibility is a lot to bear, it doesn’t compare to the anticipation: “I’m really excited to get some new equipment!” Spoken like a true kitchen geek.