In honor of Memorial Day and in celebration of our current, retired and future military personnel — 303 Magazine is putting a spotlight on veteran executive chef Lou Ortiz and the phenomenal fare he’s cooking up at SOL Cocina Cherry Creek. For millions of current and retired military, their time served to our country shapes and guides their success after service. Ortiz’s contribution to the Denver culinary scene is proof of that. 

 The Chef

Ortiz served five years in the US Marine Corps. — completing tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan before making a home for himself in the kitchen. Ortiz built a mile-high reputation as part of the opening team at Troy Guard’s Los Chingones concept. In 2016, Ortiz took an executive chef position at James Beard award-nominated author and chef Deborah Schneider’s SOL Cocina Cherry Creek where he has since served some of the neighborhoods hottest contemporary Mexican cuisine. We stopped in to chat with chef Ortiz — to learn more about his relationship with food, his experience in the armed forces and how his military and culinary worlds collide.

Chef Lou Ortiz behind the glass at SOL Cocina Cherry Creek

Ortiz finds a familiar pleasure in leading his kitchen through the often hectic and frequently demanding lunch and dinner services during the week. He explained that often people who join the military and people who work in the kitchen share a similar salt of the earth background — there is always room to discipline, build relationships and improve skill sets in these types of environments. According to Ortiz, these environments cultivate family.

“The kitchen gives me an opportunity to be around guys that are just as rugged and as wild as in the Marines… to conquer outstanding obstacles daily with a gridiron gang and to do it in unison is what it’s about. If you love the guy next to you or not, whether you’re in the middle of a fight or the middle of (dinner) service, you need each other,” explained Ortiz.  

Kitchen work environments demand discipline, concentration and a chain of command. Organization and precision execution are most effective when executed from the top down. Ortiz touches on how a restaurant’s high-paced environment helps him to form order from chaos.

Orchestrating his kitchen gives him peace of mind. Being the head in the chain of command allows him to focus his staff and execute dinner service with the precision of a Marine Corps vet. The effects of operating in a high-stress kitchen harmonize with Ortiz’s military background and help to form an environment that is comfortable. It is second nature to operate under pressure and success, and these situations help aid the effects of his PTSD daily.

“If you have PTSD, it creates a lot of anxiety. With a tolerance for high-stress levels and a leadership attention to detail, I find that being a chef helps me with my PTSD,” he explained.

Chef Lou Ortiz kicks back for an interview with 303 Magazine

We asked Ortiz if he had any words of advice for any current or past military, in regards to life after the armed services.

“One of the biggest things that makes you feel out of place (after the military) is the thought that the skills and experiences you have don’t mean anything anymore. Make sure to remember how much you learned, how much you grew and your leadership skills and then apply them to a new profession. I have a high stress level tolerance and a military attention to detail — and so does everyone who comes out of the armed forces. Never discredit the experiences and the talent you’ve accrued, never belittle it and find a way to make it a strength.”

When it comes to dining in the armed forces, the ritual serves a primary purpose in designating a time and place for relaxation and peace. As part of active military, Ortiz recalls not always having the luxury of a dinner table and how his appreciation for hospitality bloomed from the comfort found in warm meals on tour. In the words of Chef Ortiz, “Dinner puts the entire experience, the entire evening, the whole celebration in your hands and lets the diner drop their shoulders.” 

Some of Ortiz’s favorite menu items to serve include everything from a hot and raw tropical ceviche ($14.5o) to a grilled Kobe skirt steak ($32). His top picks often rotate but what stays the same is the kitchen is where he has made his permanent home. His staff — from dishwasher to sous chef — are all his family and his soldiers. With a kitchen for a battlefield and more than 10 years of culinary experience as his weapon — Ortiz is a chef to reckon with. Let your shoulders down this Memorial Day weekend and enjoy a relaxing and plentiful meal with your family or your loved ones. On behalf of 303 and the Denver culinary scene — thank you to chef Ortiz and everyone the US armed forces.

All Photography by Kyle Cooper.

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From the bar, Chef recommends sipping the Sol Grande Casa Noble Reposado Margarita ($17). The cocktail comes served in its own silver bullet shaker and is designed to quench the thirst of a champion. Private label single barrel reposado is shaken table side in a choice of either skinny or house mix preparation — but the chef notes that he prefers house style. This is a refreshingly tart, smoky sour-green margarita fit for a soldier. 

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Ortiz brought out hot and raw tropical ceviche ($14.5o) as his choice for a shareable dish. It’s the perfect light and refreshing summer appetizer. A frosted goblet fit for King Arthur weighs heavy and comes overfilled with a mix of vibrant tropical fruit and sashimi grade albacore.

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Off the dinner menu, the grilled Kobe skirt steak ($32) comes with chef’s highest recommendation. This beast is presented on a plater full of greenery which includes salsa verde, avocado, roasted jalapeno and green onion — full of latin spice and style. The Kobe heritage proves itself time and time again as being exceptionally marbled, juicy and tender to the knife. The dish is absolutely mouth-watering and deserving of a revisit.

SOL Cocina Cherry Creek is located at 200 Columbine Street #110, Denver. It is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.