It's hard to think of another profession that has gained more status in the last decade or so than being a chef. Not only are chefs stepping out of the kitchen to connect with groups, they are utilizing their kitchens and venues as laboratories for new approaches. Colorado Meetings + Events checked in with five chefs who are daring to dream.
Growing a Restaurant Group
In 1987, 25-year-old Kevin Taylor, a self-taught chef, opened Zenith American Grill. With its unique take on southwestern cuisine, the eatery quickly became one of three top-rated restaurants in Denver and earned a prized Four Star rating, securing the young chef’s place on Colorado’s culinary map. “We were the first to do something really contemporary,” Taylor reflects.
The Denver native has opened many successful restaurants over the years and savors operating Kevin Taylor Restaurant Group with a talented and committed team that includes his wife, Denise, and their sons, Ryan and Cooper. “With our kids involved, it’s taking a lot of pressure off us. We want to continue to grow with new concepts, looking at what is missing in neighborhoods and the demographics and people there. Before, that was not part of the equation, instead you opened, got the big review and didn’t look back.”
KTRG is in the enviable position of regularly turning deals down from developers and landlords in order to find the right fit, like the Mediterranean-inspired Mila on the main floor of downtown’s Denver Place and Masa in Broomfield, focused on authentic Mexican food and located just doors away from Hickory & Ash that was opened in July 2017. Ryan is the consulting chef for both Broomfield restaurants, and Cooper is the general manager of Hickory & Ash.
Family and employee involvement has been rewarding and “helps you stay on track and dream for the future,” Taylor says. “We have a really good team of people who are talented, want to grow and don’t sit around.”
Hickory & Ash and Mila both have private dining spaces along with the 11,600-square-foot Kevin Taylor’s at the Opera House, located in the Denver Performing Arts Complex. Kevin Taylor Catering also serves the 8,000-square-foot Studio Loft in DPAC, caters high-end private dinners, and operates Rouge next door to the Central City Opera House for several weeks every summer.
He observes that more and larger events are selecting Denver as a destination and including additional guests due to the strong economy. Also, groups are requiring customization versus selecting from an event guide. “It’s so much more hands-on now,” Taylor says. “We have one or two people at each property who work with groups and are site-specific.”
Crafting an Interactive Dining Experience
Three years ago, Eric Robbins and his wife Katie, introduced an interactive dining experience to the Denver area: Uncorked Kitchen & Wine Bar in Centennial. A full schedule of classes is available with regularly changing topics like Thrill of the Grill, Summertime French Favorites and Colorful Colorado, as well as wine tastings and classes in the wine bar and opportunities to book private events and classes. Plus, the wine bar is open for drinks and small plates and has a patio for pure relaxation.
“We are not just another cooking school; the essence of what we offer in our kitchens is cultivated from the many shared meals I had growing up in my family home, where we often had people gathering in our kitchen, working together, socializing and ultimately enjoying dining on a delicious meal,” says Eric, who serves as executive chef.
A Colorado native, he attended the University of Colorado Boulder and graduated with a degree in economics and a business minor. After working in trade logistics for a clothing manufacturer in Denver, he moved to Boston, completed the professional chefs program at Cambridge School for Culinary Arts and worked his way through multiple kitchens in the Boston area. He left the restaurant world to work for Wolfgang Puck Catering and later was named resident chef for Sur la Table’s flagship store in downtown Boston, spearheading all aspects of the cooking school side of the business.
“Through all of these experiences, I was able to tell that people loved food and loved talking about it almost as much; this helped to serve as the backbone of the types of experiences that we offer at Uncorked Kitchen, the social side of cooking so to speak,” he explains.
Culinary team-building for corporate groups is a significant segment of the Robbins’ business. There is a minimum of 10 or 12 people for a private event, but smaller groups can take part in scheduled classes. For a private event, an Iron Chef-style competition works well, Robbins notes, and involves splitting up into teams, developing a menu, preparing the meal and sharing the dishes.
Uncorked Kitchen now has 20 employees and will be adding a third kitchen. The Robbins plan to launch a second location and build the brand into a national business.
Breaking Ground as a Catering R & D Chef
Like Robbins, Nikki Olst made a career change to become a chef, first working as an executive assistant in the corporate world. She graduated from the Art Institute of Colorado with a culinary associates degree in 2010 and began working for Epicurean Group, a Centennialbased catering company, as a pastry prep cook at Sports Authority Field (now known as Broncos Stadium at Mile High). Moving up the ranks, she worked as a pastry chef, executive sous chef and executive chef at the venue and recently was named research and development chef for the entire company.
“The research and development/innovation chef is a fairly new role for the catering world, within the last three to five years,” she explains. “I work closely with our culinary team to test new recipes and configure the best way to execute them on-site at events. Menu development, rollout of our seasonal menus, station creation and implementation are key factors of my position as well.”
She acknowledges that being the executive chef at Broncos Stadium at Mile High is an exciting job for a young chef. “There are so many moving parts, it’s like manipulating a giant puzzle so that all the pieces fit to create the best event on game day and hospitality experience possible,” Olst shares. “With 140 suites, the entire Epicurean team is set and ready to execute 140 different events that all start at the same time with different menu items. It is a highly orchestrated masterpiece.”
Epicurean also caters 200 events a year on average at the stadium outside of game days, working with groups that range from 10 to 10,000 guests.
Olst also enjoys being part of the Taste of the Broncos every year and working closely with We Don’t Waste, a local nonprofit that rescues wholesome food from restaurants, caterers and purveyors and redistributes it to Colorado nonprofits. In addition, she is an adjunct instructor at her alma mater. Olst concludes, “I am so thankful that I made the switch to a culinary and hospitality career. I dared to dream and am thrilled every day to be in this fast-paced, everchanging environment.”
Shaking Up the Resort Chef Role
Daring to dream and getting to implement the ideas make it fun to go to work every day for Paul Polizzi, resort executive chef for Omni Interlocken Hotel in Broomfield since March 2017.
Last year, five beehives that hold close to a quarter-million bees were installed in a meadow adjacent to the property’s Golf Club, behind Vista Course Hole #3. Now Vista#3 Home Hived Honey is available for retail purchase and is used in the hotel’s pastry shop, main kitchen and as part of displays at banquet events.
The honey can even be used for team-building. After groups walk out to see the hives, they go back to the kitchen to make honey wheat bread or pizza dough with honey or take part in a mixology class. One of Polizzi’s favorite uses for the golden nectar is for honey lavender macaroon amenities for VIP guests and client gift boxes. Upcoming sweet initiatives include a private label beer and spa products.
A project Polizzi is currently working on is creating a self-reliant aquaponics garden with the plants fertilized by fish ponds, bees pollinating the crops, produce raised and served at the hotel, and seeds used for future planting or resale. A small building is planned so groups can help pick the bounty and cook it with a chef in the garden. Polizzi also envisions having a long table with globe lights in the garden for chef’s dinners, VIP events and more. The garden area should be ready by next summer.
“We like what we are doing and showing that we are not a normal operation,” says Polizzi, who has been professionally cooking for almost 20 years, most recently working as executive chef for Vail Resort’s One Ski Hill Place in Breckenridge, The Farmhouse Restaurant and Conference Center in Fair Oaks, Indiana, and The Westin Austin at The Domain in Texas.
“The fact that we will be able to produce our own products here at the resort—honey, vegetables, herbs and eventually fish—is a dream that a lot of chefs have but never comes to a reality,” he shares. “It’s definitely a reality here!”
Stirring It Up on the Western Slope
Josh Niernberg and his wife, Jodi, began pushing the boundaries of Colorado’s Western Slope food scene when they opened Grand Junction’s Bin 707 Foodbar, a seasonally focused American restaurant, seven years ago. In 2017, the couple launched two new concepts side-by-side in a historic downtown building. Tacoparty is a 50-seat, quick-service Colorado taco shop with a farm-to-table ethos and a revolving menu of appetizers, salads and daily taco specials along with unique soft-serve ice cream flavors such as sweet corn and roasted beet. Dinnerparty, with a 50-seat dining room, is Josh’s incubator for menu and concept ideas and is open for private gatherings and food, wine and spirit-driven events to showcase Colorado’s Grand Valley.
Niernberg, a fifth generation Coloradoan, began his restaurant career in Denver, working at night while pursuing a career as a snowboarder. Cooking won out, and he spent the next 15 years working for some of the best chefs in Colorado and advancing his career by pursuing sommelier certification, learning to tend bar and wait tables, and managing all aspects of a restaurant.
Before relocating to Jodi’s hometown of Grand Junction in 2007, Josh helped open and operate several notable Denver restaurants. The Niernbergs planned to live on the Western Slope for no more than two years, marketing a restaurant for lease and operating the existing restaurant until a new tenant was secured.“By 2009, the recession had hit and when we started talking about opening our own place, Grand Junction seemed to offer unique oppor - tunities, which still holds true today,” he says.
Approximately 80 percent of the restaurants’ food dollars are spent on Colorado ingredients and more than half of that is produced in western Colorado. He says, “We have amazing produce, wine, beer and even a distillery here, had developed relationships with some ranchers and discussed the sourcing issues, and decided that Grand Junction would be the perfect place to open a restaurant that could help redefine what a modern contemporary, locally sourced and chef-driven restaurant could be.”
Niernberg says, “We are hoping to demonstrate the cuisine evolution in Colorado while using local and Colorado ingredients to do so.”