Presenting Denver’s Newest Chef-testant

Chef Manny Barella for Jaguar Bolera
Photo courtesy of Feed Media

Manuel Barella López, better known to Top Chef: Wisconsin fans as Chef Manny, didn’t start his cooking career like most others – he studied law. However, after searching for a passion that aligned with his moral compass and goals, he decided on culinary school. 

And it was a clear decision. Barella’s “love for food from a young age, and wanting to see the world and different cultures through food,” matches his current goal to “always be a part of somebody’s good day.” With this passion, the 39-year-old chef from Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico – now calling Longmont, CO home – has made his way to Top Chef. 

Besides overseeing the menu developments as culinary director for two new eatertainments, Barella has been busy cooking his way through hardcore challenges in the 21st season of Top Chef. In the first episode, he created a flavorful and comforting green pozole, a soup that is made from hominy, chicken and charred salsa verde. 

Landing him a win for that challenge, Barella continues creating homey yet elegant Mexican-inspired dishes. He even overcame the ever-tricky “risotto curse” – when contestants struggle with time restraints to make the dish – through an innovative esquites risotto. He matched the recent “Chaos Cuisine” episode by adding an unconventional burnt tortilla, exemplifying him as a semifinalist for James Beard 2022 Emerging Chef.

READ: James Beard Foundation Announces 2022 Restaurant and Chef Award Semifinalists
Chef Manny winning the first challenge on season 21 of Top Chef
Photo courtesy of David Moir/Bravo

Other than cooking, his favorite experience on Top Chef has been the friendships he’s made. “The connections I’ve formed with my fellow chefs on the competition are entirely unique to our experience. We talk every day, we are each other’s biggest supporters and we really admire and value each other as friends and as chefs,” Barella said. There is still an active group chat that the contestants share.

As seen from his dishes on the show, Barella is inspired by his heritage and life experience. His favorite childhood meal is Carlota de Limón, a traditional northern Mexican lime icebox cake. The recipe is passed down from his grandmother. “When I was a kid, we used to make it all the time, and it’s so good,” he said. “You just layer the super simple ingredients like a lasagna, put it in the fridge and cut it like a pie the next day!”

Now, he implements different cuisines into his cooking. “From American Southern to French to Japanese to Italian. At the moment, I would say my specialties, interest and my talents are mostly with Italian and Mexican cuisines,” Barella said. He often mixes the latter cuisines to create unique dishes like his Birria Mafaldine, which combines juicy, spicy birria meat with the curly, ribbon pasta. 

Chef Manny looking at ingredients on Top Chef
Photo courtesy of David Moir/Bravo

This technique comes from his experiences. After beginning his culinary career, Barella worked in several Michelin rated restaurants, including Napa Valley’s Solage Resort. Then landing in Colorado, he was chef de partie at Frasca Food & Wine, sous chef at Uchi and executive chef and partner at Bellota. Recently, Barella crossed paths with restaurant innovator Robert Thompson. 

Now, the two have created restaurants and menus that appeal to diners looking to enjoy more than food. In May, Jaguar Bolera is opening in Raleigh, NC and will feature social activities like duckpin bowling and karaoke. You can enjoy the social atmosphere alongside fusion dishes of “the heart of Mexican flavors with the soul of Southern cuisine.” 

Camp Pickle, which opens in Denver in 2025, focuses on the ever-growing sport – pickleball. “The vibes are 1940s national parks and camp culture. I’m very excited about the culinary program that’s going to focus on smoked and camp-fired flavors. We’re doing a lot over wood on open flames – it’ll be fire (pun intended),” said Barella. 

READ: Serving Justice at These Future Denver Pickleball Courts
Chef Barella for Jaguar Bolera
Photo courtesy of Feed Media

Being the President of the Hispanic Chefs Association in Colorado, Barella’s role is “all about educating and elevating Hispanic cuisine, and supporting those who make it from back of house to front of house,” he said. 

But his hopes for the future of cuisine in this state? “One of my primary goals is mentoring upcoming chefs and another is providing support, wherever and whenever needed – whether that’s scholarships, ESL classes, etc. – to help those in the community grow in their career.”

Discover more from 303 Magazine

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading