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Colorado’s Top Chef

Master chef Jennifer Jasinski is blazing trails in three deliciously diverse Denver kitchens.

By Cowboys & Indians contributor, Ellise Pierce

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Photo provided by Cowboys and Indians. Photography by Chad Chisholm.

Jennifer Jasinski may not wear boots to work — her preferred footwear is a pair of bright green Dansko clogs — but she’s a cowgirl in spirit, blazing trails in the kitchens of her three Denver restaurants: Rioja, Bistro Vendôme, and Euclid Hall Bar & Kitchen. This past year she won the prestigious James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef Southwest Award and was a finalist on Bravo’s Top Chef Masters, just two of the latest accomplishments for the award-winning chef who, by 21, had made the dean’s list at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, while working weekends at New York City’s renowned Rainbow Room. With accolades from Denver magazine, The Denver Post, 5280 magazine, and the American Culinary Federation, Jasinski’s professional life reads like a fast train destined for culinary stardom. We managed to catch up with the busy chef between lunch and dinner service at Rioja.

Cowboys & Indians: What does winning the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef Southwest Award mean to you?
Jennifer Jasinski: It was so exciting, it was so amazing, and I didn’t think I was going to get it. I believe in myself; I just didn’t think it would be my year. The competition was amazing. It was like a lifetime achievement award for me. Wow. I’ve been here nine years, and we try to keep ourselves relevant. I want to be thoughtful and progressive and current. So it’s nice to get the recognition. It’s really great.

C&I: You’re a California girl, raised in Santa Barbara. After attending the Culinary Institute of America in New York, you returned to Los Angeles to train with Wolfgang Puck, eventually working in his kitchens from San Francisco to Chicago. After all of your cross-continental travel, why’d you decide to settle in Denver?
Jasinski: When I was still working with Wolfgang, I had come here to do some parties and I really liked the city. It seemed like a nice place to be, and I was coming to the end of my time with Wolfgang. I wanted to push myself and do something different. I had a great résumé and a lot of job offers in Los Angeles, but I wanted to go somewhere where nobody knew me.

C&I: What’s your earliest memory of being in the kitchen?
Jasinski: Cooking with my grandmother. I would help her out in the kitchen. I liked to eat, so I stayed close to her. She’d let me mix things, and later she gave me cookbooks — the first edition of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and the Culinary Institute of America professional chef book from 1962. When I was 7 or 8, I’d take flank steak and Italian dressing, marinate it in the bag, and then we’d grill it. When I got Paul Prudhomme’s cookbook in high school, I started making corn bread.

C&I: Back then, did you think one day you’d be a professional chef?
Jasinski: I still wasn’t sure. I was playing the flute and clarinet and I thought maybe I’d continue on with music, then I started cooking and I loved it. I think it’s the artistic nature of music and being a chef. I went to Santa Barbara City College for hotel and restaurant management and then to [the Culinary Institute of America]. I liked it a lot and I thought I was good at it and it seemed natural … but I also think I kind of had a moment [where] I was thinking to myself, Oh this is going to be great. I can eat the rest of my life.

C&I: How would you describe your cooking style?
Jasinski: It’s clean and direct, thoughtful cuisine. I like to highlight the ingredients. Sometimes I like to do multiple things with the same ingredients — artichoke mousse, artichoke stock, and artichoke chips — to show the versatility of it. I don’t like to overcomplicate things. Hopefully it doesn’t seem busy to the guests.

C&I: Do you think your approach to the kitchen — and what’s on the plate — is different because you’re a woman?
Jasinski: No. I think my expression of food has to do with everything about me, from my history, my background, and the things I hunger to learn. The other day my husband [Max MacKissock, former owner/chef of The Squeaky Bean] said, “It must be harder for you. It’s a boys’ club out there.” That’s probably why men call us bossy and pushy. I definitely feel there are not many women who stay in the game for a long time. Eventually lots of women want to have a family, but Max and I decided not to have kids.

C&I: But you have dogs, right?
Jasinski: Two dogs. A 3-year-old yellow lab named Deano and a chocolate lab named Gingersnap. We like to go hike in the mountains. We like it when we go on trips with them; they’re our kids. We went to Crested Butte and took our mountain bikes and the dogs and that was fun.

C&I: You have often described Rioja as serving Mediterranean-influenced cuisine with seasonal, local ingredients. Can you speak to the whole idea of local and how important it is — or isn’t?
Jasinski: I have a little bit of a different perspective than some people on that locavore trend. I want the best ingredients in my restaurants. I want to find the absolute best duck, and if that doesn’t come from Denver, I’m going to buy it elsewhere. I love Colorado lamb and some of the local goat cheeses because it’s the best. If it’s not the best, I’m not going to buy it.

C&I: How often do you change your menus?
Jasinski: Every three weeks. I feel like we’re always putting something new on the menu, but there are three things on the menu at Rioja that we always offer. Two are sacred: the artichoke tortelloni [goat cheese and artichoke mousse-stuffed pasta with artichoke broth, truffle essence, queso de mano, and chervil] and the pork belly appetizer [fresh bacon, cardamom-spiced Kurobuta pork belly, and Madras curry-scented garbanzo bean purée]. We’ve had the dessert bei-gnets on the menu since day one.

C&I: Restaurants are notorious for having a high failure rate, and you’ve managed to open not just one but three successful restaurants in Denver over the last 10 years. Besides Rioja, you also own Bistro Vendôme, a classic French bistro, and the meat- and beer-centric Euclid Hall Bar & Kitchen. Why do you think they have been so successful?
Jasinski: I have the best business partner, Beth Gruitch, in the world — that’s one reason. We work together really well. Plus, attention to detail. You gotta hire good people that care. There are so many other things … I can’t put my finger on one reason why we’ve done well. Get people smarter than you, get good people around you. I love what I do — that makes it easy. We have a great location and we examine our product all the time. How was the service? How was our food? How was our wine list? Hopefully we make [the experience] something special.

C&I: Some writers have a favorite pen. Some cowboys have a favorite pair of boots. And chefs have a favorite knife. What’s your favorite?
Jasinski: A Sword Sakai Ichimonji Mitsuhide, a straight-edged 8- or 9-inch. I got it in Japan.

C&I: Everyone has a food they can’t and won’t eat. Can you share yours?
Jasinski: Green bell pepper. Green bell peppers, I hate. I won’t allow them in my kitchen.

C&I: And, finally, what’s next for you?
Jasinski: We are close to doing another restaurant in Denver. We want to keep expanding our vision and what we do.

For recipes and more, visit www.cowboysindians.com.