Denver is a city of ever-evolving culinary influencers, strategists and dynamic personalities. They’re eclectic and supremely talented, trendsetting and triumphant and determined to challenge convention and the status quo. This year’s 30-pack of young success stories from all walks of life and backgrounds is making an indelible mark on the Mile High City’s food-and-drink scene. They include a pair of hunter-gatherers, a young woman deftly pioneering the art of old-school butchery, a 23-year-old bartender who’s already a certified sommelier and a brilliant brewer who’s untapping some of the best beers in country. In one way or another, they’re all defining the future of Denver’s culinary climate — a landscape that's clearly in excellent hands.
-Story by Lori Midson, photos by Adam Larkey
Adam Brock, 29Co-Founder, The GrowHaus
After studying ecological design at NYU, Brock returned to Denver determined to make a difference. He and friend Coby Gould set their sights on an indoor farm and educational classroom that, says Brock, "shows folks that alternative systems to agriculture, economics and community development can really work." The nonprofit farm, which grows and dispenses food to the underserved Elyria-Swansea neighborhood, also offers hands-on workshops and volunteer opportunities. "The best part of my job is witnessing the tangible changes that I've had a hand in creating," says Brock, who's publishing a book on social permaculture in 2017.
Jessica Beer, 28Manager, Cured
Pressed by her parents to find an after-school job — and searching for a “sense of independence and capability” — Jessica Beer cruised around the Philly neighborhood where she grew up and found herself enamored with the Chestnut Hill Cheese Shop. “I was immediately intrigued by the atmosphere, the sights and the smells, and that’s where I fell in love with cheese,” says Beer, who joined the team at Cured in 2013. “My existence is pretty dreamy right now,” admits Beer, who recently placed second at the 2015 Cheesemonger Invitational in San Francisco and holds a Certified Cheese Professional designation from the American Cheese Society.
Brian Crow, 28Executive Chef, Bacon Social House
Not too many chefs have the honor of cooking for a president, but while working at the Corner Kitchen in Asheville, North Carolina, Brain Crow did exactly that. A cook since the tender age of 13, Crow, a Texas native, also honed his culinary skills under the tutelage of a Thomas Keller alum at Asheville’s The Grove Park Inn, a four-diamond restaurant. “Cooking is more than just putting food on a plate; it's about creating a unique and memorable experience," insists Crow, who hopes to deliver on that promise when he opens Bacon Social House, a “playfully sophisticated” concept that’s slated to debut in November.
Jessica Desormeaux, 28Pastry Chef, Old Major
Jessica Desormeaux began her successful pastry career at Rheinlander Bakery in Arvada where she worked, she says, for a "scientist who broke down baking into equations and formulas, explained why certain reactions happen and justified how ingredients fit together to create a bigger picture." That foundation prepared her for follow-up pastry positions at Barolo Grill, Habit and now, Old Major, where she was just brought on board as the chef of confections. "I'm always researching new trends in the pastry world, trying new recipes and finding tweaks here and there to make every recipe my own," says Desormeaux.
Jonathan Feuersanger, 23Beverage Manager, Beast + Bottle
At just 23 years old, Massachusetts transplant Jon Feuersanger is the youngest culinary heavyweight to grace our list. A certified sommelier, graduate of Johnson & Wales and self-described "guitar aficionado," Feuersanger oversees the outstanding bar program at Beast + Bottle which, he says, "focuses on seasonal progression, honors the integrity of every ingredient and highlights or enhances specific flavors and techniques." The bartender's ultimate career goal is to own his own restaurant and "show the world my perspective on food, wine and hospitality."
Kade Gianinetti, 26Co-Owner, Method Coffee Roasters, American Grind, State Fare, The Way Back
From busser to bartender, coffee roaster to food-truck founder, Kade Gianinetti has pretty much done it all. Three years ago, he and his partners in coffee crime, started messing around with a stove-top coffee roaster, which eventually led to the launch of Method Coffee Roasters. Gianinetti and another business associate then hit the ground running with American Grind, a burger-centric food truck, and State Fare, a truck dedicated to upscale fair food. And by the end of this year, he'll be behind the stick of The Way Back, a new bar and restaurant serving "post-industrial American" cuisine.
Connor Green, 25Bar Manager, Steuben’s Food Service
As a kid, Connor Green had aspirations of becoming an Olympic swimmer. “I wanted to be like Mark Spitz, the Phelps of yesteryear and way cooler,” he quips. Instead, he attended Iowa State University, graduated with a business-marketing major and bought a one-way ticket to Denver, where he landed at Steuben’s, initially as a server. Two years later, he started tending bar. “That was a whole other beast, but it taught me all about the beauty of crafting cocktails,” says Green, who will spearhead the bar program at Steuben's 2.0, opening next year in Arvada.
Dan Grund, 26Founder, Night Shift
"Cooking is where I find a temporary respite from reality," muses Dan Grund who, up until recently, was pursuing a skiing career. He ditched it to launch a food cart, which dispenses exceptional street-food snacks like baos at the food-truck bazaar in the courtyard of Finn's Manor. The concept was born when he realized that Denver lacked quality late-night food options. "It was all pizza, burritos and 7-Eleven, and I had this perfect combination of naivety, boredom and masochistic drive to succeed," says Grund, who's launching a Day Shift spin-off this month offering simple counter-service breakfast.
Ryan “Nascarr” Higgins, 27Executive Chef, Lou’s Food Bar
When there are three "Ryans" in the kitchen, and one of them drives a pickup truck and watches NASCAR racing, it's only natural that "Nascarr" is the nickname that sticks — just tack on an extra "r" for emphasis. Higgins was cooking at The Broadmoor when he earned that moniker, and that's still what everyone calls him at Lou's, where the young wunderkind fires up killer fried chicken. A five-year veteran of Bonanno Concepts, the young executive chef says his career so far “has been a dream come true." Fun fact: “Nascarr” has never actually been to a NASCAR race.
Erika Jensen, 28General Manager, Green Russell, Russell’s Smokehouse and Wednesday’s Pie
Erika Jensen attended Colorado State University on a piano scholarship with the intention of becoming a collegiate choral conductor. But while music is still a large part of her life, she passed up a professional teaching career for the hospitality industry; now she holds a coveted management position with Bonanno Concepts, the prolific restaurant group owned by Frank Bonanno. A hands-on manager who does everything from adjusting firing times in the kitchen to providing exemplary hospitality, Jensen says the key to her successful management style is “leading by example and teaching with love and logic.”
Garrett Kasper, 28Executive Chef, Palace Arms
“When I was growing up, all I thought about was baseball,” recalls Kasper. But following a couple of shoulder injuries, he gave up his glove for the galley. “Cooking was a hobby of mine, and I quickly realized that I was fairly good at it,” says the chef, who attended culinary school in Arizona and worked in restaurants all across the country before landing in one of Denver's most lauded kitchens. "I really practice patience and welcome mistakes as a way of teaching and learning,” says Kasper, who reveals too, that he's “pretty darn good on a motorcycle."
Kate Kavanaugh, 26Owner, Western Daughters Butcher Shoppe
"I wanted to eat in a way that supported my passion for land stewardship, and then I just sort of fell in love with meat," says Kavanaugh, who apprenticed at Fleisher's in upstate New York before she and Josh Curtiss, her partner and significant other, opened two butcher shops in Denver. Advocating sustainably raised animals, their shop’s focus is on "sourcing protein and supporting systems that are good for the land, good for the animal, good for the farmer and good for the consumer," says Kavanaugh, who also sits on the board of the Sustainable Food Policy Council.
Ty Leon, 26Executive Chef, Mizuna
Exceptionally creative, constantly coming up with new menu ideas and always on the prowl for strange and exotic ingredients, Ty Leon, who grew up on a small farm in Gilbert, Arizona, fell in love with cooking while taking classes in junior high school. Before landing at Mizuna, he cooked at the Plumed Horse in Saratoga, California. Influenced most by the recipes in his notebook, "especially failed recipes that I want to make better,” Leon thrives on the adrenaline of the kitchen. "I live for the nights when we're stressed, sweating and running to someone else's station before their sauce catches on fire," he says.
Nick Martinez and Graham Steinruck, Both 29Owners, Hunt & Gather
For the past few years, Denver’s best restaurants have turned to this duo for hard-to-find specialty ingredients, especially wild mushrooms, an obsession of both men who met at a Colorado Mycological Society meeting. Martinez, a Texas native and former chef, says that the transition from cook to forager and food distributor went something like this: “Chefs loved the local wild mushrooms we picked, and once I realized that there was an actual demand for what we were doing, I had that ‘aha!’ moment.” Steinruck credits Martinez as the “push that I needed to turn this concept into a reality.” A Denver native, Steinruck also makes his own beer, tempeh and sauerkraut.
Christine Milam, 27Manager and Sommelier, Rioja
As the manager of one of Denver's most notable restaurants, "I do everyone's job where it's needed the most," says Milam, also a certified sommelier. Inspired by chef Barbara Lynch and wine expert Cat Silirie, Milam admits that she "gravitates toward strong women," so it's no surprise that she found kindred spirits in Rioja owners Jennifer Jasinski and Beth Gruitch. Dubbed “hyper-productive” by her boyfriend, Milam, who generates respect from her staff by “getting her hands dirty” and “working just as hard as them,” notes that her management style works because of her supportive “show, don’t tell” attitude.
Joshua Rapp, 29Senior Brewer, Avery Brewing Company
Following a string of corporate jobs that left him "completely disenchanted," Rapp found his true passion: beer. But despite the obsession, he never believed that he'd work for what many consider the best brewery in the state. "The philosophy at Avery is really all about innovation," says Rapp, whose team has amassed numerous medals at the Great American Beer Festival, including a silver at this year's showdown. Also a black belt in shao-lin kung, Rapp is creating a recipe for a beer that he'll pour at his own wedding next year.
Josh Rathbun, 29Sous-Chef, Mercantile Dining & Provision
Rathbun was encouraged to cook at a young age and cut his teeth at some of Chicago’s most illustrious kitchens, including Blackbird, Avec and Graham Elliot. Now he oversees the pasta station at Mercantile and, in the AM, “keeps the kitchen running and organized.” The sous-chef experienced kidney failure just a few years ago (his cousin donated one of his own kidneys), a scare, he says, that gave him reason to work with the National Kidney Foundation on a few projects. Rathbun also aspires to open his own small restaurant some day.
Lee Reitz, 25Sous-Chef, Luca
As a kid, Reitz remembers standing on a stool peering over a pot of meatballs, while his grandmother dipped her bare hands into boiling water to test whether the pasta was al dente. "Food always brought the family together," says Reitz, an American Culinary Foundation Colorado Chef of the Year finalist and Johnson & Wales graduate who began his culinary career at 15 in the kitchen of Silo Elevated Cuisine in San Antonio. His cooking philosophy? "Stay educated on what you’re serving; and don't follow the trends and diets just because they're popular."
Zurisadai Resendiz, 28Sous-Chef, Panzano
Fifteen years ago, Zuri Resendiz left Mexico City for Denver, where he secured a line-cook gig at Chinook Tavern. Hard work, perseverance and, he says, “my multitasking skills and maturity,” led to a highly prized position as the sous-chef at Panzano, Elise Wiggins’s award-winning Downtown Italian restaurant. “I’ve become a leader and really developed my skills at Panzano,” adds Resendiz, who also chalks up his success to “creativity, curiosity and making great plates that make people happy and create unforgettable moments.”
Joey Sabatini, 28Chef de Cuisine, Milk & Honey Bar • Kitchen
“We never went without a perfect meal,” says Florida transplant Joey Sabatini, recollecting the years he spent working in the Italian restaurants owned by his grandparents. “I was raised in their kitchens and did everything from bussing tables to baking bread and rolling pasta,” says Sabatini, who is now the chef de cuisine of Milk & Honey Bar · Kitchen. “I like to surprise people with simplicity on the plate and then take them on an amazing journey with their palate,” explains Sabatini, adding that his day begins with jotting down the stream of menu ideas that come to him throughout the night.
Nate Singer, 28Head Butcher & Charcutier, Blackbelly Market
As the lead butcher at Hosea Rosenberg’s Blackbelly Market, Nate Singer knows a thing or two about breaking down whole animals, sometimes up to five a day. The Wyoming native, whose dad was also a butcher, cites honesty and hard work as his most notable traits, as well as transparency and cultivating strong relationships with his farmers and ranchers. “It’s about the quality and care of the product, and respecting every animal,” says Singer, who's involved in a couple of big projects, including writing his first book and overseeing the build-out of Blackbelly’s new butcher shop.
Ben Shapiro, 27Chef de Cuisine, Masterpiece Delicatessen and the upcoming Masterpiece Kitchen
You can’t have a conversation about sandwiches in Denver without lauding Masterpiece Deli, a cult shop that turns out amazing things between the bread (the truffled egg-salad sandwich is legendary). And while exec chef Justin Brunson is the mastermind behind the brand, it’s Shapiro, a fourth-grade spelling-bee champ, who ensures that every sandwich lives up to the Deli’s lofty name. Responsible for everything from preparing daily specials to crafting the housemade kimchi and hot sauces, Shapiro is also looking forward to commanding the kitchen at the forthcoming Masterpiece Kitchen, a full-service expansion opening next year in Lowry.
Russell Stippich, 27Sous-Chef, The Nickel
Like a lot of kids, Stippich’s dreams stretched to the moon and back. “I wanted to be a scientist or an astronaut,” he recalls. But a bartending gig at a restaurant resulted in a fascination with cooking — and the camaraderie of a kitchen. “I really enjoyed the band-of-brothers mentality that everyone had,” says Stippich, whose first gig in the galley was at Frasca Food and Wine. Stippich, who just recently became the sous-chef at The Nickel, says he's most looking forward to "making it a spot that's No. 1 on everyone's dining list."
Elle Taylor, 25Owner, Amethyst Coffee Company
Elle Taylor’s original career aspirations had absolutely nothing to do with java. “I have a degree in songwriting from the Berklee School of Music, but I wanted to go to college at Smith or Brown and be a veterinarian,” she remembers. To make some extra cash, she worked behind a bar in Boston, but the nighttime schedule was grueling, so she switched to a morning barista gig. After perfecting her skills and competing in several coffee competitions throughout the United States, she opened the buzz-generating Amethyst Coffee Company earlier this year.
Ryan Taylor, 26Executive Chef, Kevin Taylor’s at the Opera House
Taylor’s culinary career began at 15 at the now-defunct Restaurant Kevin Taylor, a fine-dining Downtown Denver destination that was owned by his father — and Taylor’s biggest inspiration. “My dad didn’t just teach me about food; he taught me about the business side of running a restaurant and just about everything else,” says Taylor, adding some advice of his own: “Go out to eat; travel; experience different cultures; try new techniques; and always challenge yourself with the unknown.” Along with being an accomplished chef, Taylor is also a level one sommelier and cicerone.
Amanda Villosio, 26Hospitality Manager, Avanti Food & Beverage
Often referred to as "Snack Time" for her insatiable appetite, Villosio was a pastry chef at NYC’s Aureole before moving to Denver and landing a spot on the opening team of Sugarmill, then spearheading the pastry program at TAG. After moonlighting at TAG as a host, an introduction landed her at Avanti Food & Beverage, Denver’s newest food hall. Hired as the hospitality manager or, as her business card says, "general badass," Villosio’s strengths include a keen eye for detail and a strong work ethic, as well as “helping those around her hold onto their sanity."
Brittany Wangsness, 29Bar Manager, Baur's Restaurant & Listening Lounge
"I never grew up saying I wanted to be a bartender," says Brittany Wangsness. "I'm so stoked that I became someone who has the ability to help lead the industry." Wangsness became a bartender at 21, first at California Pizza Kitchen, a gig that was followed by stints at Z Cuisine, Hapa Sushi, TAG and Green Russell, where she "fully stepped into craft bartending." A self-described "sucker for stirred, spirit-forward drinks," the certified somm describes her bar program at Baur's as "approachable without any pretense."
Brian Wilson, 28Executive Chef, Sargent Concepts
While studying music and composition in NYC, Wilson, the exec chef of Brazen and the forthcoming Telegraph, got the itch to explore culinary arts. “Living near the best food in the world made me want to cook,” recalls Wilson, who worked at Brooklyn’s Marlow & Sons, Diner and Roman’s. From there, he staged at top restaurants like The Modern, Babbo and Next, eventually landing in Denver, where he cooked at Rioja. “I’ve worked really hard to get where I am,” says Wilson, who has a third project in the works for next year with Brazen/Telegraph’s Chris Sargent.
Kyle West, 29Beverage/Events Manager, MetroBoom
In the fourth grade, Kyle West made a decision: he was going to be an electrician. Years later, while watching a Boulder bartender unwrap his tool roll, it clicked. "I remember thinking to myself that I could have tools like an electrician and create art every day as a bartender," remembers West, who worked at P.F. Chang's, Lola and Geatano's before bursting onto the scene with MetroBoom: part elevated barbershop, part men's clothier, part bar. As the kingpin of the bar program, West creates cocktails incorporating, he says, “seasonality, classic elements, modern execution and chilled glassware.”
Ian Wortham, 28Chef di Cucina, Frasca Food & Wine
Frasca Food and Wine, Boulder’s nationally renowned culinary destination, has amassed more accolades than perhaps any other restaurant in the state. And not surprisingly, the kitchen is ripe with remarkably talented young chefs, including Ian Wortham, a New Jersey native who wanted to be a professional photographer and happened to fall into cooking on his way toward earning a photography degree from Ithaca College. “My inspirations come from raw ingredients, the techniques that can be applied to them and thinking about how the regional foods of Italy can be presented in interesting ways,” explains Wortham.