Women in White, Chefs bring passion and creativity to the food they prepare

These women in the kitchen are no stereotypical Betty Crockers. They may wear the white garb of a chef, but they possess colorful and charming personalities, are passionate about food to the point of obsession and have one thing in mind: To make you — a guest at their restaurants — very happy.

wib1ELISE WIGGINS, PANZANO
While growing up in Louisiana, Elise Wiggins and her extended family gathered on weekends for feasts where the food was plentiful and delicious and everyone was happy, spreading compliments as if there were no tomorrow. That’s when she learned cooking could make a lot of people happy in a short amount of time. Now, as the executive chef at Panzano, she still measures success by the people around her and what they say. Nothing is more satisfying than creating a dish, “having it hit the table and watching the guests, the food in their mouths, and you can read their lips: ‘Oh, my God.’” Viewing those favorable reactions “is like a drug to me. I’m addicted. It’s the driving force behind me.” Crowds keep coming to the Italian restaurant in downtown Denver for the “explosive” flavors that are Wiggins’ trademark. “I appreciate subtle flavors … there’s an art to composing a symphony of flavors that are delicate,” she says. But she loves big tastes, and feedback shows her customers are drawn to them, too.

Wiggins makes a point of talking with patrons, a necessity in a city like Denver, where restaurant competition is fierce and the atmosphere social. Making a connection personally, says Wiggins, is inviting and resonates with the locals: “I hook them … they come back over and over again.” She first learned to appreciate Italian and other world cuisines at home. Her mother was well traveled, and as a young girl, spent summers at Lake Como, Italy, where a friend taught her the finer points of the local cooking. Her mother often served those dishes, including a “true carbonara” — a sauce made with pancetta (or bacon) and eggs — to Elise and the family. But Wiggins learned the basics of restaurant cooking from two prize-winning chefs in Dallas. During the day, she was a floor manager of The Grotto, but as the sun began to set, she retreated to the back of the restaurant, where the chefs taught her about making broths and what type of vegetable chop delivers the most flavor for certain dishes.

“It was truly my foundation,” she explains. “In culinary school, you learn the techniques and the basics. But in the school of hard knocks, when you’re in the kitchen, you experience the full application of what you are doing, from prep all the way to the guest. You see the final product.” Wiggins then came to Denver to attend culinary school, graduating with honors from the Colorado Institute of Art. She worked for several restaurants in Denver, then sought international experience at a Westin resort in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Her biggest challenge there, she says, was not the menu, but getting the locals to cook the way she wanted. There she learned to motivate her staff. “People are an extension of your hands. They have to be able to do what your hands and palate envision,” she says. Her next stop on the culinary road was Memphis, where she was recruited to develop the menu for the Capriccio Restaurant in the Peabody Hotel. But she missed Colorado — “this is where I want to die,” she says — and came to Panzano. She comments, “Colorado is such a breath of fresh air. I love to be outdoors, be physical, hike. It is a playground to me. People are so happy here. I swear it’s because we live in such a beautiful place. And Colorado is one of the fittest places.”

The majority of ingredients she uses are organic, purchased from farmers’ markets and local growers. “Chefs have the responsibility to put good things into people,” she says. “We want it to taste really good, but it’s equally important to put things in that will be good for their bodies.” Wiggins pours her “heart and soul” into the menu, always tweaking the dishes and developing new ones. Once she’s devised a novel dish, she offers it to the servers, who, she says, are “brutally honest.” If it passes muster with them, she adds it to the menu as a “special” and gets immediate feedback from the guests. “There are some things I can’t take off the menu because I would have a mutiny. People would be picketing outside,” she confides. But innovation is one of her favorite parts of the job. “I get really excited about something I’ve never seen before.” She asked a local herb farmer, who grows micro greens for the restaurant, whether nasturtium leaves could be used in dishes. The edible flowers of the plant have been used in restaurants for years. “The leaves are like horseradish. They pack a punch,” she says. Instead of making a horseradish sauce, she made a pesto of the nasturtium leaves. “It was amazing on the steaks.”

Wiggins’ 13-hour days aren’t just about food preparation. She has paperwork and budgeting to do and feedback to review. Then there are the fund-raisers, as many as 53 a year, usually on her days off. She knows the effort will help reach her ultimate goal of owning a restaurant. Already her skills have won fine dining awards for Panzano and the other kitchens where she worked. Wiggins also was named 2005 Colorado Chef of the Year by the American Culinary Federation. While the honors are a point of personal pride, she is cognizant that she has helped gain respect for women chefs around the nation and inspired those chefs-to-be, who, like herself, are fascinated with all the ways food can make people happy.

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SHEILA LUCERO, JAX FISH HOUSE

Being an executive chef can be arduous, from designing intricate menus to managing staff to getting the best cooperation from a variety of vendors. And then there’s the food. Every day is a challenge for Sheila Lucero of Jax Fish House as she tries to create appetizers and entrees from seafood that is sustainable — those varieties that have not been over-fished or captured illegally. “I want to make sure it’s caught using the right methods. Or properly farmed, not polluting the things around (the facility),” she explains. Just as she spends plenty of time prepping for a great meal, she thoroughly investigates her fishers and farmers. “There’s lots of background checking, making sure they are legitimate,” says Lucero, who has served as executive chef for nine years at the popular and lively restaurant in LoDo. “People are more educated now and want to know what they are consuming.” She no longer uses Chilean sea bass, for instance, and absent from the menu are Atlantic salmon and blue fin tuna. “You have to be smart about shrimp, too. A lot of farm-raised shrimp from China, Thailand and Viet Nam is from ocean farms that kill all the mangroves and pollute the waters. Nothing can grow there after the farm is done,” she says.

Once the proper vendors are found, fresh fish for the following day is simply a phone call away. “That part has gotten easier. I can get a shipment from anywhere the next day. Of course, you have to pay a lot for it. Especially oysters, which are like rocks. Shipping rocks across the country is not cheap,” she explains. But guests at Jax, rated the best Denver seafood restaurant by 5280 magazine, understand the price, says Lucero: “They know they are getting a really good, quality product.”
Lucero relishes writing and revising the menu, all the while involving the staff in the decision-making process. And she still loves the adrenalin rush of cooking on a nightly basis “when it’s really busy and super hot. Now that’s fun.” Because the product — mostly fish but also beef from a Boulder rancher, for instance — is so fresh, she says, “I try not to over think it. I let it speak for itself” in the dishes she prepares for diners. One item on the menu, for instance, is seared halibut cheeks. The fish is thinly sliced, then drizzled with hot peanut oil that slightly sears it. It’s served with an avocado jalapeño tobiko citrus-tequila mignonette.

Lucero, who grew up in Golden, didn’t choose her profession early in life. After graduating from Lakewood High School, she attended Florida International University on a soccer scholarship. She majored in biology, but wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. She returned to Denver and was a ski bum for a time. Growing up in a large Hispanic family, she was inspired by her father, who would spend a whole day preparing huge meals. She says, “I don’t know what the catalyst was, or the minute I knew I wanted to do this. But I thought I should try to make a living of (cooking).” She enrolled at the Colorado Art Institute, and while she studied there, worked in a variety of food venues. The days were long and hard, but she could apply what she learned in school to her job. “I started working at Jax while I was in school. It was eye-opening. Jax people wanted to talk about food. It was their passion and they all knew this is what they wanted to do. They brought in books (about food) all the time, and I sponged off that,” she recalls. That culture has continued at the restaurant as she tries to instill that same love of food to the dozen or so staff in her kitchen. She enjoys reading food books — she’s in the midst of Jacques Pepin’s memoir, The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen. “He’s an icon, someone I look up to,” she says.

She also admires numerous other chefs, including Alice Waters, who created California cuisine, focusing on fresh and locally grown ingredients, something Lucero emulates. “She’s created this whole movement, and it’s all about the product and doing it the right way and giving back to the community,” says Lucero. The Denver chef spreads her enthusiasm to peers through an annual event each September that celebrates and honors the city’s women chefs. Lucero created the Females on Fire fund-raiser to get talented cooks in Denver “to come over and play at my place.” They assemble at Jax to prepare a multi-course tasting menu with wine pairings, with proceeds going to a scholarship for a woman to attend Johnson & Wales University. “I’m giving somebody an opportunity to do what I love to do,” she explains. While leading the crew at Jax has been challenging and rewarding, like most chefs, she someday hopes to own her own establishment. But until then, she measures rewards in simple terms: “If the guests are happy, there’s a great vibe in the restaurant, nobody got hurt and the place didn’t burn down, it’s a success. There are a lot of operating parts in that machine.”

wib3JENNIFER JASINSKI, RIOJA AND BISTRO VENDOME

Celebrated chef Wolfgang Puck taught Jennifer Jasinski many things: Sit in your dining room to see how it feels. Always say “yes” to customers and give them what they want. Be sure all components of a dish taste great alone AND when mixed together. But perhaps the best advice she received from her role model was to do everything — even the simplest task — well and to take pride in it. Jasinski has a lot to be proud of. She heads one of the city’s top eateries, Rioja in Larimer Square. The restaurant, which features contemporary Mediterranean cuisine, is, she says, the “culmination of all of my thoughts during all of my life.” She strives to serve great meals in an atmosphere that isn’t stuffy. She wants guests to return over and over again and not let money be intimidating, so she has moderated the prices. And she added a local feel to the dining room. “I’m really proud of what I’ve built. The most proud I’ve ever been,” she says. Just two years after opening Rioja in 2004, Jasinski and her business partner, Beth Gruich, took over Bistro Vendome, a casual French eatery. Luckily for Jasinski, who directs both kitchens, the restaurant is just across the street from Rioja. By mid-morning, she’s in her office at Rioja, doing paperwork or searching out quality produce and other ingredients. The working chef at Rioja, she also touches base with her chef at Bistro Vendome, making sure menus and food preparation meet her standards.

She’s at the helm of Rioja for lunch, then prepares the specials of the day, and during the dinner hour, runs the cook line and chats with guests. Then she “pops over” to Bistro Vendome and checks that line, stopping again to talk with guests at that restaurant. Despite the frenetic pace, Jasinski isn’t content. She says, “My dream is to have another restaurant. I have other concepts for a restaurant or two. I want to express myself in different ways with different ventures.” She’s also writing a cookbook that’s “thrown my world into a tizzy. I want people to use it and to be successful. I want people all over the country to talk about it” and put Rioja on the national culinary map. Her restaurants already have received numerous local accolades. Jasinski’s honors include Colorado Chef of the Year (2004) and Western Regional Chef of the Year (2005) from the American Culinary Federation, along with a variety of local awards. Her food career began innocently enough, cooking for her mom and siblings at the age of about 10. One of her specialties was an adaptation of the then-popular Shake and Bake. “I made my own mix of chopped up herbs and flour” and coated, then baked chicken. “Everybody loved my chicken.”

Later she refined her skills at Santa Barbara City College, then at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. It was while working at the Rainbow Room that she had a chance meeting with Wolfgang Puck. She returned to California to find a job in Los Angeles and contacted Puck, who became her mentor. Then she began ascending the ranks, helping develop and open several restaurants from San Francisco to Chicago. While on a trip to Denver with Puck’s crew, she had a chance to get to know the city. “What struck me about Denver was what a nice city it was. The people were nice, and there was plenty of culture here,” an important quality for Jasinski, whose second love is music. A few months later, she says, it hit her: “I was feeling not bored … but I had everything in my job down to a science. I wanted to see if I could stand on my own.” A headhunter contacted her about an opening at Panzano, where she worked for nearly four years before opening Rioja. Creating food and, like her mentor Puck, teaching other cooks is still her favorite part of being a chef. “All the great people I have working for me, I’ve made their lives better, and that’s what makes me successful,” she says. Her straightforward approach to business and managing seeps into food preparation, too. “The guests know what they are getting,” she explains. “If I’m using duck, then duck is the star. I don’t complicate things, I don’t take away from the beauty of the dish.”

Often, she’ll work days to create a new entrée, getting it just right, doing even the smallest things well, before serving it to guests. “I am persistent. That’s how I’ve gotten so far. I give it all my energy. I have stayed very determined. I made goals, and I pushed forward,” she says.

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YASMIN LOZADA-HISSOM, DUO AND OLIVEA

It’s not the accolades or honors. It’s not about the perfect tart or meringue. Getting life right isn’t about watching the granola line she helped create become nationally known. Success for Yasmin Lozada-Hissom is all about balance — in her food creations and the way she juggles numerous jobs, and most importantly, a balance between her work and family life. It’s a tall order. Lozada-Hissom is the pastry chef at two restaurants, Duo in north Denver and the recently opened Olivea in Uptown. She is part owner and product developer at Udi’s Foods. Her most recent endeavor is working with a local designer to create chef coats. And when she has time, between traveling and product research, she loves to write. To excel in the demanding and stressful food industry, she says, takes impeccable organizational skills, dedicated employees and great relationships. She works closely with the restaurants’ executive chef, John Broening, who also happens to be her husband. Lozada-Hissom designs her dessert menus with Broening’s offerings in mind, and they succeed, she says, because their styles are so similar.

She uses local and seasonal ingredients and clean flavors, and as with everything in her life, seeks balance in her creations. She likes the interest of soft with crunchy ingredients or mixes mild with acidic flavors, and often pairs usual sweets — lemon, chocolate, berries — with more exotic flavors or unexpected ingredients. She might, for instance, add unusual spices, even pepper, to wake up the flavors of her desserts. The most popular dessert at Duo, which serves contemporary American cuisine, is the lemon icebox cake made with layers of caramel, lemon cream and meringue. At Olivea, she mimics the Mediterranean menu, often incorporating figs, yogurt and honey in the offerings. One after-dinner star is the croustillant made with lemon crème, fresh spring berries, a crispy tuile cookie and mascarpone semifreddo. “I’m true to myself in every single dessert. I want them to have their own character. I like to allow the intrinsic nature of each ingredient to speak for itself,” she explains. Customers love her desserts, and she says about 80 percent of the patrons enjoy one after meals.

Lozada-Hissom is as interesting and complex as one of her creations. She was born in Venezuela, grew up in Peru and lived in Italy and Paris before coming to the United States. Food was an important part of her childhood. Her mother, a busy lawyer, always found time to bake a cake or other dessert. So from a very young age, Yasmin imitated her mother, who also was her inspiration. “While the other kids were playing with God knows what, I was making dirt cakes with layers and flowers and marveling” at the finished product. “I was always imagining that I was baking beyond my abilities. I always thought it was a ton of fun … and still do,” she says.
She began her academic journey in medical school, which she finished, then was intent on becoming a writer while at La Sorbonne, before she finally settled upon culinary school. She remarks, “To be honest, you cannot excel in something that you do without passion. You have to be almost obsessed with it.” Food infuses her life. She and her husband often take trips to the coast to sample the tastes and ideas of new restaurants. When traveling, the two brainstorm about products or new palate pleasers. “It’s stimulating to have a partner that shares that passion with you,” she says. And before a recent trip to China, she researched eateries and prepared a list of places to visit for local cuisine.

She points out, “It’s important to keep yourself updated; otherwise the food becomes dated. You have to be bold and taste as much as you can … it stimulates your creativity.” Her philosophy helped earn her the semi-finalist spot for the prestigious James Beard 2009 Outstanding Pastry Chef award. Lozada-Hissom’s inventiveness doesn’t stop with desserts. While working as a pastry chef for Udi Baron, she created the original granola for Udi’s Foods, a recipe that echoed one of her grandmother’s. Now the granola line is sold across the country, in specialty stores, groceries and even Wal-Mart. She also is developing, in tandem with local designer Gilann Bernal, an eco-friendly line of chef coats to compete with the traditional boxy jackets made for men. These uniforms will instead be feminine, yet practical and professional, she says. When her days are as long as her to-do lists, she relies on humor to get her through, and she thinks about putting her life back in balance, beginning each morning, drinking coffee and chatting with her husband in their backyard oasis.

Written by CYNTHIA PASQUALE
Photography by KIMBERLY DAWN

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