You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see the tremendous growth Denver has gone through over the past few years. And with that growth, new businesses like eateries pop up rampantly. Just last week the food-market hall, Zeppelin Station opened up and Denver now is the proud owner of its very own Shake Shack in RiNo.

But even before the growth boom, people have been making their way to this state for years. They move to appreciate the wildlife, the outdoors, the music scene, the many days of sun and now the culinary offerings.

Whether they arrived yesterday, or 20 years ago, we asked some awesome Denver chefs and restaurant owners what brought them here as well their personal and culinary views of the city and state.

Hailing from New York to Mexico to New Zealand — they all present their own unique story.

Carrie Baird, Executive Chef/Partner, Bar Dough

Photo courtesy of Bravo TV

303 Magazine: Where are you from?

Carrie Baird: Pocatello, Idaho

303: How did you end up in Colorado?

CB: I went to one year of college at Boise State University — I didn’t care for college too much so I followed some friends to Colorado. We moved to Breckenridge and I lived there for 12 years.

303: How did you get into the food industry here in Colorado?

CB: When I was living up in Breckenridge I needed a job, so I ended up waiting tables and that eventually led to cooking, wanting to cook and being a cook.

303: How is Denver different than cities known for being culinary powerhouses like NYC, LA or Chicago? What gives Denver an advantage? A disadvantage?

CB: Clearly we’re smaller, so we have a little smaller of a talent pool, but I think the things that we’re doing are relevant to what they’re doing as well. Denver is kind of a hodgepodge of ethnicities, so I don’t think we’re that far behind. Denver has great produce and we have so much agriculture here that I would call that an advantage.

303: How has Colorado’s cuisine changed since you moved here?

CB: I lived up in the mountains for so many years [and here in Denver] and everything has gotten busier. It’s clear that so many people are moving here. Denver has overnight turned into a really big city or is turning into a big city. With that comes a lot of talent, a lot of new ideas and a lot of great cuisines, obviously.

303: Do you think of Colorado as home? Why or why not?

CB: Very much so — I’ve lived in Colorado longer than I’ve lived in Idaho now. Colorado has embraced me and they chose me to represent them on Top Chef. I’m just very proud of Colorado and I love living here.

Derrick Cooper, Executive Chef, The Preservery

Transplant Denver Chefs

Photo by Erik Strom

303: Where are you from?

Derrick Cooper: St. Louis, Missouri

303: How did you end up in Colorado?

DC: I wanted to live closer to my mom who was stationed out here since I hadn’t lived near her since I left home for college at 17. She told me what a cool place it was to live.

303: How did you get into the food industry here in Colorado?

DC: I had already graduated from culinary school and worked in the industry for several years. A chef can go anywhere and find employment — I was just sticking with what I already knew.

303: How is Denver different than cities known for being culinary powerhouses like NYC, LA or Chicago? What gives Denver an advantage? A disadvantage?

DC: I think the healthy lifestyle here helps to drive our food scene and we see a lot of special diet guests with vegan/vegetarian/dairy free or gluten-free requests. Food is medicine here, so you can help encourage that healthy lifestyle and heal yourself with food. A disadvantage is that chefs get irritated with guests who have dietary restrictions, but I see it more as a welcome challenge.

303: How would you define Colorado cuisine and how has it changed since you moved here?

DC: Besides the healthy food aspect, there is no “Colorado food” since we’re a melting pot of every technique and style. I think the farm-to-table movement has grown a lot since I’ve been here. I’m happy to see a lot of people are leaving “big food” like Sysco and going to smaller and local food companies. That’s the type of ingredients sourcing we’re focused on here at The Preservery.

303: Do you think of Colorado as home? Why or why not?  

DC: I think of home as where you grew up and know tons of people, so it’s home for now but it’s not home home.

Dana Rodriguez, Executive Chef, Work & Class

Transplant Denver Chefs

Photo by Jennifer Olson.

303: Where are you from?

Dana Rodriguez: Parral, Chihuahua, Mexico

303: How did you end up in Colorado?

DR: I was actually going to school for computer engineering down in Monterrey, Mexico — but after I got married, and had my three daughters, we decided to visit Colorado for vacation and we really liked it. So I stayed and applied at Panzano in 1998. I said if they hired me I would stay, otherwise, I would go back and keep working in Mexico. The rest is history.

303: How did you get into the industry here in Colorado?

DR: I got hired at Panzano as a dishwasher and fell in love with Italian cuisine. A year after Jen Jasinski and Beth Gruitch took over Panzano, they became my mentors and took me under their wings. They taught me everything — I worked for them for 17 years. And I always had [at least a second job] at places like Tamayo, Kevin Taylor’s, the Cheesecake Factory, Appaloosa Grill, etc. — just to learn all different types of cuisine.

303: How is Denver different than cities known for being culinary powerhouses like NYC, LA or Chicago? What gives Denver an advantage? A disadvantage?

DR: I’ve never worked in other states so I’m not sure about the differences, but I know for sure 20 years ago Denver was smaller and not so big on food. Now, Denver [has] the best opportunity for everyone to grow in the industry with cuisines from all over the world. Our community is amazing and they really support the industry. Now, all the people from New York and San Francisco are coming here, that means something for us — we don’t need to go anywhere. 

303: How would you define Colorado cuisine and how has it changed since you moved here?

DR: Like I said — it has grown so much and it’s the best because we have food from all over the world. Also, we are not just fine dining, we are a very casual city with great, simple food and craft beers. We don’t need much more than this.

303: Do you think of Colorado as home? Why or why not?

DR: Of course, this is home. I’ve been here for more than 20 years, my kids have grown up here, I have all my friends here and my second family “restaurant people.” I love the weather, the mountains, everything.

Dan Lasiy & Bo Porytko, Chefs/Owners, Rebel Restaurant

Rebel Restaurant owner and chef Dan Laisy (left). Photo by Glenn Ross.

303: Where are you from?

Dan Lasiy: Whippany, New Jersey

Bo Porytko: Morristown, New Jersey, but I spent a lot of my youth in New York City.

303: How did you end up in Colorado? 

DL: For a more outdoor lifestyle.

BP: I ended up here due to Dan living here. We’ve known each other since pre-kindergarten and we both felt very complacent back in New Jersey. I moved out to California to go to grad school for English Literature for the sole purpose of becoming a professor of Harry Potter but decided that maybe instead of six years of going back to school for a very esoteric goal, I would follow my other love, and enlisted in culinary school instead. I kept trying to convince Dan to come do something with me in Cali and he kept trying to get me to do the same here in Colorado and we had a better offer here in Colorado.

303: How is Denver different than cities known for being culinary powerhouses like NYC, LA or Chicago? What gives Denver an advantage? A disadvantage?

DL: Denver is definitely a smaller, more incestuous food scene. Everyone knows everyone and there are very tight cliques. Advantages are that it is new and people want to create food-oriented businesses. Even though you can find a tight community in any city, Denver’s seems a little more “nice,” open and willing to work together. There are also smaller local companies to work with.

The disadvantage is that nobody wants to take a risk — everyone just follows and does what they know sells. Everyone uses the same ingredients, just dressed up in different ways. There is plenty of talent in this city to make good food, but people play it safe because they don’t want to upset the customers. Or they have to try that hard to stay popular because the competition is so intense. I have never been part of a restaurant community where the customers drive the food scene as much as they do here. Also, maybe because it is a blossoming food scene, but there is a serious lack of knowledge and/or curiosity towards food from the consumer and the media. Consumers will take a risk every once in a while, but on average they always play it safe and want simple food.

We all want simple foods, who doesn’t like a burger or mac ‘n cheese. However, the amount of the same, basic things that are successful in this city is baffling. Either the chefs are busy glad-handing and opening other places, or they can’t find good help. Either way, there are restaurants in this city, where the food is subpar, and they are still popular, which is disappointing because these chefs are representing Denver’s food scene. I have personally had food from their own hands, and it’s 100 times better than what is served in their restaurants. It’s just disappointing.

BP: Having lived in California and New York — I can say that Denver is not there yet as a major food city. It does seem to be making strides and there is a lot of tasty food, but not enough experimental cuisine, or ethnic cuisine outside of certain neighborhoods. You can walk a block in any direction in NYC and find three times more diverse cuisine. It just seems like a general sameness to the approach and execution. However, I do believe that Denver does stand apart in its concern for local and sustainable product and its relationships with the farming community. I hope as a city we continue to maintain these concerns while we grow and it becomes easier to ignore them.

303: Do you think of Colorado as home? Why or why not?

DL: Yes, I think of Colorado as home. This city and state are amazing, endless amounts of opportunity for business and pleasure. Most importantly, everyone is helpful and nice — sometimes the East Coast can be a little cold in that way. I love this town, there are great chefs here, I just want us to be the best food city we can be.

BP:  I love Colorado and it will always be a home. I feel like a part of this city since I made it the place I put a lot of my heart and soul in with Rebel, but I’ve never seen myself staying anywhere forever. I’d love to make it one of many homes. I would never want to lose the relationships I’ve made here.

Amy Cohen (Chef) & Hayden Barnie (FOH Manager), Owners, Stowaway Kitchen

Photo by Brittany Werges.

303: Where are you from?

Amy Cohen: I’m from Chicago and my husband, Hayden is from Wellington, New Zealand.

303: How did you end up in Colorado? Was it your career in the food industry?

AC: Hayden and I had been living in Melbourne, Australia, both working in the industry over there and had planned to come stateside to open up our own little gig. We hopped around different cities trying to find the right fit and Denver seemed perfect for who we are and what we wanted to do. 

303: Do you have any upcoming projects?

AC:  We have recently started serving dinner for our ‘Stowaway Supper Club.’ The menu is the brainchild of our OG chef, Johnny Naffah, who shares our love for Middle Eastern food. We’ve always had some Middle Eastern flair on our daytime menu but haven’t noticed very much of that cuisine in Denver otherwise. It may not be familiar comfort food for many in this city, but I feel like people here are hungry for new flavors and ideas. We’re very excited to be able to bring something new to the table and add to the expanding repertoire of this burgeoning city.

303: How is Denver different than cities known for being culinary powerhouses like NYC, LA or Chicago? What gives Denver an advantage? A disadvantage?

AC: Denver is unique in that it’s still accessible for the little guys with no preceding reputation — like us! Even though the prices keep getting higher, compared to cities like NYC and LA, there’s still room — and need — for new concepts and small businesses. Not only that, I think Denver wants to support its small businesses because who wants to live in a world of franchises?

One of Denver’s disadvantages is that there’s no intermixture of eras or cultures on one block — everything in our neighborhood is new and hip. It’d be awesome if there was a really good Korean restaurant run by some dudes that have been there since forever thrown in there somewhere, instead of having to make the trek to Aurora.
303: How would you define Colorado cuisine and how has it changed since you moved here?

AC: I don’t think Colorado has a defined cuisine. It’s an ever-expanding hodgepodge of influences from everywhere.

303: Do you think of Colorado as home? Why or why not?

AC: After moving around for a while, I don’t know that I’ll ever pinpoint what ‘home’ is. I feel incredibly lucky to live in such a beautiful place with good-natured people. I’ve got a wonderful network of friends and family here. We’ve got a business that we’re proud of and a fantastic community that we’ve found through that. So yeah, I guess I think of Colorado as home. 

Paul C. Reilly, Executive Chef/Co-Owner, Beast + Bottle, Coperta

Photo courtesy of Beast + Bottle.

303: Where are you from?

Paul C. Reilly: I grew up in Yorktown Heights, New York in [the] Hudson Valley.

303: How did you end up in Colorado? Was it your career in the food industry?

PR: This is my second time living in Colorado. I moved back here in 2005, to accept the sous chef position at Mirepoix.

303: How would you define Colorado cuisine and how has it changed since you moved here?

PR: To me, the definition of Colorado cuisine has changed by morphing from steakhouses and “Colo-Mex” to farm-to-table and chef-driven concepts. 

303: Do you think of Colorado as home? Why or why not?

PR: I view both New York and Colorado as home. Both for very different reasons and at very different points in my life and career!

Elise Wiggins, Chef/Owner, Cattivella

Photo by Glenn Ross.

303: Where are you from?

Elise Wiggins: West Monroe, Louisiana

303: How did you end up in Colorado? Was it your career in the food industry?

EW: I had been learning to cook through hard knocks for many years in Dallas.  My chef encouraged me to go to culinary school because it was starting to become important to have a degree from a culinary school.  While I was looking into New Orleans or New York for culinary school, I took off for a month and drove to Colorado.  I had never been out of the South and always had a calling to visit [Colorado]. I camped all over the state for one month and fell in love.  As my trip was winding down, I researched if any culinary schools were present in the state.  There was one — the Colorado Institute of Art.  I went back and asked my chef and he said that culinary school will be what I make it.  I packed my bags and moved three weeks later

303: Do you have any upcoming projects?

EW: I’m working on a cooking show….shhh…it’s a secret.

303: How is Denver different than cities known for being culinary powerhouses like NYC, LA or Chicago? What gives Denver an advantage? A disadvantage?

EW: I strongly feel that Denver is a strong culinary city.  The only thing that we are missing is Michelin stars.  I have traveled all over the world and dined in many Michelin star restaurants.  Lots of the one and two star restaurants weren’t one quarter as good as the restaurants we have here.  Denver’s advantage is that everyone wants to live here because it’s so beautiful. Chef talent is moving here along with businesses because of the beauty. The disadvantage is that it is so pretty that everybody and their mama wants to move here. It’s creating a culinary bubble.

303: How would you define Colorado cuisine?

EW: I don’t think we are different than any other city.  We have amazing cuisines represented.  

303: Do you think of Colorado as home? Why or why not?

EW:  Yes, I love it so much here and it has been so good to me.  This is where I’ll die.

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