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Interview with Denver's Unstoppable Chef, Elise Wiggins

Interview with Denver's Unstoppable Chef, Elise Wiggins

Like many people with charisma, Chef Elise Wiggins, carries herself with a comfortable confidence. She is also clearly a determined person. She knows what she wants from life and works relentlessly towards it. She’s worked hard in each and every restaurant she’s spent time at, testing her kitchen skills, experimenting with food, learning to manage people, becoming the best. Elise has won accolades, been offered plum kitchen positions, always managed to keep moving up through the ranks. Yet, contrary to what you might expect of someone well renowned, the obviously gregarious Elise manages to put people immediately at ease with friendly conversation. Despite being incredibly busy she was also willing to sit down and talk frankly with The Daily Meal about her restaurant and her lifelong passion for cooking.

Wiggins currently holds the position of Executive Chef at Italian favorite Panzano, in Denver. Panzano is the in house restaurant for The Hotel Monaco. Owned by Kimpton Hotels & Resorts, The Monaco is part of a small boutique hotel chain; which follows a philosophy of hiring stellar people to provide guests with a unique and high end experience at their properties.

Wiggins told The Daily Meal she has been very happy with the Kimpton way of doing things, "It's like owning your own restaurant. You're independent. You drive the menu; but, like any high end restaurant situation it's also, sink or swim. If you don't do well you won't last." This is an environment Chef Elise, who is the kind of person who will always swim, thrives in. "The menu is 100% mine and as long as I'm successful I can just keep doing what I want to do."

Certainly Panzano has been successful with Wiggins at the helm. Both Chef Elise and Panzano have received high praise from the media. Dinners have weighed in with their dollars. Panzano's income has more then doubled from 3.2 million annually to 8.4 million since Elise became the Executive Chef ten years ago. "Most restaurants increase their revenue, they hope to, by 5% [annually] and I crush that. I crush it every year." Chef Elise attributes this growth to the fact that she throws all she has into the restaurant.

To achieve that type of success it’s apparent Elise doesn't have a lot of time for much more then work. The last couple months in particular have been especially hectic. Chef Elise is part of the "Denver Five" a group of top chefs, picked each year, chosen to represent the city and it's cuisine on the national level. Chef Elise is also getting ready to open up another restaurant. As one might imagine Elsie doesn't have a lot of time to relax. When she does occasionally get some time to herself she loves to hike, fly fish, and she also does some wood work. She is working on a black walnut, modern desk right now, though admittedly only in a few spare moments.

However, busy is ok, when being a professional chef has always been your dream. "I always say that I came out of my mother's womb cooking; I can't remember a time that I didn't love cooking. My first memory is when I was a child, and she’s [Elise’s mother] holding me, putting my hand in this green bowl, and it was cookie dough. I remember her making the cookies and then giving me and the rest of the family one; and we all took a bite, and I just remember seeing everybody's face. I remember I enjoyed it, I saw their faces, everybody was enjoying it; and it clicked with me right then and there. Ah-ha, you make good food then you make a lot of people happy. So I was like, that's what I want to do. I want to make a lot of people happy and make myself happy at the same time; and I've been pursuing that ever since.”

At three Elise stopped watching Sesame Street preferring instead to spend her T.V. time observing Julia Childs; and was already spending as much time in the kitchen as possible. Yet, the way to becoming a professional chef followed a meandering road for Elise. Though she wanted to attend culinary school her parents, certainly affected by the ideals of the Women's Lib movement, wanted to see Elise go to college, get a degree, have a career. Not cook. They insisted on this path telling Elise, "Once you finish college, and you still want to go to culinary school, you can pay for it, you can go; and that's exactly what I did."

In college Elise tried on a lot of different hats, but graduated with a degree in philosophy, anthropology, and psychology. She laughingly told The Daily Meal, "It was actually the easiest degree I could get at Northeast. I went for seven years and I was a pre-major of so many different things, I didn't know what I wanted to do. I thought, ok maybe this is interesting, and I'd try it for a little bit and, nope. I'd switch my major every six moths or so."

Unlike many who would have given up on becoming a chef and just followed the easier path Elise did continue to pursue the restaurant world. Elise calls herself stubborn, but perhaps tenacious a better word, "When I really have my heart set on something I just do it.”

Throughout college and after Elise was always working in a restaurant. She learned a lot and, "Kind of got smacked around in a kitchen which was great. I loved every minute of it." She hit a certain point however, where she was advised to head back to school and get her culinary degree because it would really help her achieve her goals. She attended the culinary school at The Art Institute of Colorado and flew through her program.

It's fortunate that Elise had the perseverance to stick it out because she was clearly meant to be a chef. The work she's done at the several restaurants after culinary school has always been high caliber. Palio at The Westin Rio Mar Resort, Capriccio at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, and of course Panzano here in Denver have been well reviewed under her tenure. Certainly the food she's serving today at Panzano, is creative and delicious. Chef Elise hits a standard that not many people meet. Despite their earlier misgivings, Elise's parents are now very happy as well, "What child knows at birth what she wants to do?"

Nic Lebas on Culinary School, the South of France and Panzano

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Nic Lebas grew up in the south of France, where cooking with his grandmother ignited his interest in food. After culinary training in his home country, he moved to Mexico, eventually making his way through a number of North American cities before landing a position with a Kimpton hotel in St. Petersburg, Florida. When the Panzano executive-chef position opened up, Lebas leaped at the opportunity to move to Denver and to draw from his roots to refine the Italian menu of the Hotel Monaco restaurant. In this interview, he talks about how France&rsquos culinary-school requirements go a long way toward professionalizing the industry, the problem with prioritizing authenticity over the American palate, and why southern French cooking isn&rsquot so different from Spanish or Italian.

Westword: You grew up in France, where you learned to cook. What ignited your interest in food?

Nic Lebas: I started in my grandmother&rsquos kitchen my grandmother is from Italy. I started watching her cooking classic food &mdash gnocchi, spaghetti, lasagna, fresh pasta. My mother was a server. I&rsquove loved it since I was a kid.

Round two with Scott Yosten, exec chef of Steakhouse 10

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Scott Yosten Steakhouse 10 3516 South Elati Street 303-789-0911

This is part two of my interview with Scott Yosten, exec chef of Steakhouse 10. Part one of my interview with Yosten ran in this space yesterday.

Favorite food city: Chicago. The ethnic boroughs and neighborhoods turn out the best food you'll ever eat. Just like in New York, there's a gyros place on every corner, but in Chicago each place is different. This is a city that lives for its food, and you can tell that's true every time you put something in your mouth. Guiltiest food pleasure: Great vanilla-bean ice cream with fresh berries and heated Melba sauce.

Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: Sushi Den. I'm a huge sushi fan, and every time I go here, the food and service are spot-on. Their ability to produce new menu items and daily specials will never let you down, and in our current economy, it's great to see that this place is always packed.

Favorite music to cook by: As a whole, we like the oldies, Kool 105, great jazz and, of course, classic rock and roll.

Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Work smart, work hard, work clean, respect the staff, and most important, respect the food. When shit happens, you have to adapt.

Biggest kitchen disaster: This leads me to one of the most tragic restaurant horror stories related to breakage. When you're training to become a chef and rising to an executive-chef level, you're exposed to some of the most incredible cooking and serving vessels known to man, and the vessels are the canvas with which you paint your plate and serve your beverage. When the chaparral in the Marriott was converted into a steakhouse with seating for 200 people, all of the china, glassware and flatware were imported. They started with 300 fourteen-inch round, ceramic entree plates that were hand-painted and imported from Spain. They were stocked on the line over the broiler and sauté station for easy access -- and to keep them warm for service. Apparently the guy who installed the shelving system for the plates missed the memo that made it clear to use bolts when you're securing shelves that need to support a substantial amount of weight. Rule number one in the restaurant industry? Food and glass don't mix. Sure enough, on a busy Friday night, we saw the bolts pulling out of the plate shelf from the wall over the sauté station. There were four of us on the line -- not enough -- so we immediately summoned help, and the first guy to show up was our exec chef, who was 130 pounds soaking wet. He grabbed the side of the sagging shelf and held it up long enough for us to remove 100 plates -- and then we all had to bail out because we saw what was coming. The other 200 plates came crashing down in dominoes fashion on the sauté station and the broiler, creating a thunder that could be heard on the twelfth floor. My culinary heart was in my hands for the next week. I wasn't just saddened by the loss of some of the most beautiful serving vessels I've ever seen, but the closure of the line for two days. I worked on and off the clock for those two days, living in the Marriott to get that line functional.

How do you handle customer complaints -- and what should customers do when they're unhappy? No gray area here -- only black and white. You have a customer that's either empathetic -- someone who understands that we're having an off night, or every so often we're going to miss a steak -- or you have a customer who's drunk and rude. Either way, it's not about how you cook the crow it's about how you make it taste. We all have those great days, and you can be perfect for a long time, but in one night, it can go south real quick. The customer is paying hard-earned money to dine in your restaurant, so if you don't get right the first time, you do whatever it takes to get it right the second time.

What are your thoughts on social-review sites, like Yelp and Opentable and Urbanspoon? Everyone has their own opinion about restaurants and food, but the issue of credibility certainly comes into play. These sites are out there, make no mistake about it, and as chefs, we try to learn -- and make ourselves better -- from the information we read. But who's to say that the operators of these establishments don't have their friends and family posting glowing reviews of their restaurants on these sites, without ever even visiting them?

Favorite celebrity chef: Hands down, Wolfgang Puck. He just gets it. He was -- and still is -- a hands-on chef who knows the feeling of sweat running down his butt during a Saturday-night service. He knows what a good steam burn feels like he knows how to pull the knife away from his finger before it becomes a cut -- now it's just a nick he's pulled his sterling silverware out of a bus tub filled with Caeser dressing, red wine and half-eaten bread he's rolled up his sleeves and helped the dishwasher bust out the pots and pans and he's grown his restaurant and food empire because he's a mentor, a true teacher of the culinary world, and his love for it still shows today. Yes, he can be loud and sometimes has an ego, but he's earned that right through his hard work, employee retention, promotion throughout his organization, and surrounding himself with the proper people.

Celebrity chef who should shut up: When aspiring chefs and food-and-beverage managers go to the Art Institute of America, Cornell University, the Cordon Bleu or the University of Denver, their goal is to become a celebrity chef. Then again, perhaps not. Maybe they enter the business because of the feel, the smells, the tastes and textures, the procedures and, most of all, the heritage. Maybe Daddy wants his daughter to take over the restaurant or Mommy wants her son to take over the kitchen. I'd like to think that celebrity chefs share the same things that all chefs do: their love for food and spices, the preparation, the presentation and the smiles on the faces of their customers. But a lot of today's celebrity chefs are scripted, rehearsed, time-framed and in front of the camera with full-on makeup. Still, they didn't choose this life, and they still have a passion for food, and best of all, they're sharing it with us. The Food Network, Bravo and many of the local stations are providing us with the culinary insight into current and future trends of the foodservice industry. All that said, I'm fairly sure Rachael Ray was running a school cafeteria somewhere before she landed her gig with the Food Network. And I'm positive that Gordon Ramsay was a bitter, empowered corporate training chef somewhere, and that, as a child, he was beaten in the schoolyard every day.

If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? I'd love to cook with Elise Wiggins from Panzano. She has it all: zing, attitude, knowledge, personality and a great kitchen mentality. And, of course, who wouldn't want to cook with Julia Child? One of my mentors, Pierre Wolfe, had the pleasure of doing so. When I watched the film of them cooking together, there was such a great connection, and their ability to showcase their food to a worldwide audience was a pleasure to behold.

Which Denver chefs do you most respect? Denver and Boulder have an incredible number of talented chefs, and their ability to produce so many different world cuisines, run their kitchens like machines and bring the farm to the table has put Denver on the culinary map. It's pretty clear that people all over the country now know that Denver isn't steak and potatoes anymore. Still, the chefs whom I respect the most are the ones who can keep their doors open -- and Frank Bonanno is the first chef who comes to mind. He's a chef who can crunch the numbers and run profit to the bottom line.

Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Quite simply, my longevity. I started my culinary career at a very young age and have continued to evolve ever since. The fact that I've worked at some of the finest houses in Denver is something I'll always be proud of, and the ability to grow with the food trends in Denver -- past and current -- is something that I've really enjoyed. And working at Steakhouse 10 every day with the entire crew and ownership puts a smile on my face. And that's a great thing.

What's your favorite knife? I have a ten-inch Henckel carbon hollow-point knife that I use for all my prep and grunt work. It holds an edge for a long period of time and has the weight and balance that's perfect for my hand. I also have a six-inch Forschner boning knife that I use every day for breaking down meat. It's never been on a sharpening stone.

You're making a pizza. What's on it? Roma tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, fresh basil, sauteed portobello mushrooms and extra-virgin olive oil.

Hardest lesson you've learned: The restaurant business is all about people and food. I learned years ago not to take things too personally, especially the things that are out of your control. In this business, mistakes happen all of the time, and you learn from them, brush yourself off and move forward.

What's next for you? To finish this cookbook I'm writing. The unique thing about it is that each recipe has an entire nutritional analysis for that specific dish. My main goal is to get Steve Hess, the trainer for the Denver Nuggets, to sit down with me and be part of this. At one time, I had a cafe inside the Greenwood Athletic Club, which is where I met Steve, and when he took over the trainer position for the Nuggets, the dietary intake of the players wasn't up to his nutritional expectations, so he approached me to implement healthy food and recipes for the players -- and as a result, we started to make meals that the players could take home and pop into the oven. The cookbook is a compilation of the cafe recipes and brand-new ones.

Keep Westword Free. Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.

3. Elway’s

When you put an iconic name on the front of your restaurant there is a lot of pressure to not just be good, but to be great. Elway’s is just that. Despite the emerging competition, this fine establishment continues to offer next level service with memorable cuisine. Elway’s is your classic Denver steakhouse and is the right place to go when you want a hearty meal that justifies the price and satisfies your appetite.

4. OAK at Fourteenth

Another exceptional restaurant from owners Steven Redzikowski and Bryan Danton and yet another Boulder establishment listed in the top five of this list. A New American seasonal menu featuring locally sourced ingredients and a high (high) level of hospitality. OAK is constantly making measured adjustments to stay relevant and ahead of the game. The name represents the oak oven and grill used to prepare some of the best dishes in the state. It doesn’t have to be a special occasion to dine here, but it sure will feel like it’s one.

Part two: Ill Mondo Vecchio's Mark DeNittis seeks global salumi domination

Support the independent voice of Denver and help keep the future of Westword free.

Mark DeNittis Il Mondo Vecchio 1174 South Cherokee Street 303-744-6328

This is part two of Lori Midson's interview with Mark DeNittis, the salumi emperor of Il mondo Vecchio. To read the first part of that interview, click here.

Culinary inspirations: My grandparents, both paternal and maternal, gave me a deep understanding, respect and appreciation for cultivating, gardening, hunting, fishing, and having fun cooking foods. It was part necessity and part wanting to gather the family together for dinner. There was nothing trendy about it. My father also had a creative and playful approach to food, but he always respected the animals roaming the land, air and sea I'm grateful that he passed that respect along to me. Jean-Michel Matos, from the Breakers Hotel/Breakers Country Club in Palm Beach, Florida, was my first industry chef and mentor -- my industry "father" -- and he taught me the classics and fundamentals of cooking, the hows and whys of cooking, and, last but not least, how to handle a situation rather than let the situation handle you. And I've got to give props to a guy named Jim Mills, a former chef who's now the manager of the Houstonian Hotel Club and Spa, for helping me develop a deeper appreciation and understanding of foods and ingredients themselves. He also helped me cultivate a very mindful approach to culinary departmental management philosophies -- not so much operationally, but the human side of developing and managing a stronger team.

Greatest accomplishment as a chef: The grand-opening night of the Shadow Hawk clubhouse in Richmond, Texas, just outside Houston. It was October of 1999, I was the executive chef, and I had spent just over $55,000 on food for 350 people, including a $10,000, 800-pound cheeses-of-the-world display and a $7,000 caviar display with a rotating ice carving of a golf bag with clubs. The pinnacle moment, after working for 72 hours straight to get the place opened, was welcoming former President George H. W. Bush, our first member, to his new clubhouse and then celebrating the occasion by swigging back a bottle of Moët & Chandon White Star and jubilantly downing a sixteen-ounce tin of Beluga caviar back in my office.

Rules of conduct in your kitchen: I am a very process- and production-motivated matrix, which drives people crazy -- but it is what it is. I insist on organized, effortless motions and movements in the kitchen and a team that's as efficient, clean and sanitary as possible. I train my team to think about their actions and steps during a shift. How many kitchen tiles are you going to cross to accomplish how many tasks? Can you cross 100 tiles and get five things done? Ten things? Fifty things? The culinary world is not just about food and food costs it's about efficiency and labor, which I can't stress enough. Oh, yeah. and please wash your hands. Frequently.

Favorite restaurant in America: Le Pichet, in Seattle. It serves simple and rustic French food, and the service is impeccable. On a busy Thursday afternoon, with no reservation, my wife and I went to the bar and ordered the charcuterie plate and a bottle of wine at the bartender's suggestion. Two days later, on a Saturday, again with no reservation, we got seats along the wall. The waiter came up, did his song-and-dance routine and then asked if we would like to have the same bottle of wine the bartender had suggested two days before. In a major city, on a very busy day, the bartender glanced our way and remembered us and the bottle of wine we drank. That was really cool.

Best food city in America: Worcester, Massachusetts, at my grandmother's house. We'd have Sunday dinner with cavatelli and tomato gravy with beef, sausage, veal, pork and meatballs artichokes simmered in water, oil, parsley and garlic veal cutlets and chopped salad with olive oil and red wine vinegar. I also really dig the Seattle restaurant scene. Over a span of only four days, I managed to drop over $1,200 in food alone without one bad experience. I can't say the same for other cities even the $650, sixteen-course dinner at a three-star Michelin Las Vegas hot spot couldn't compare.

Favorite dish to cook at home: Christmas dinner. We have a smorgasbord of seafood, from stuffed squid simmered in red sauce and squid salad to marinated octopus, stuffed quahogs and grilled Colorado/American rack of lamb with salt, pepper, garlic, a touch of rosemary and lemon. The lamb has been my daughter's Christmas request since she started talking, at the age of two.

Favorite salumi product: All of them, but if you force me to pick just one, I'd have to go with the vino e pepe nero. I grew up on it, and out of everything we make, it tastes most like a salami. But the Calabrese sopressata chub is a close second I grew up on that, too.

If you could make any product, even though it wouldn't sell, what would it be? Pig's ears. For some weird reason, most people don't want to eat pig's ears. I love them.

One book that every chef should read: Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain. He speaks very candidly about the dark sides of our industry, and it was a very real read that paralleled some of my own experiences.

What show would you pitch to the Food Network, and what would it be about? I'd pitch an extension to my cookbook, My Jeep Grille Adventures: Camp Kitchen and Cookbook. The show would be extreme adventure travel-based, with a starting point somewhere in the Deep South and a finishing point in the Pacific Northwest, with stops in New Mexico, Colorado and Moab. Each segment would involve locating a really cool local farm, ranch, product or ingredient and a local chef from that area preparing a regional dish out on the trail in the scenic backcountry. Half the fun would be in the adventure itself and four-wheeling from one destination to the next. I have a proposal put together, some sponsorship potentials and it's ready for review.

Current Denver culinary genius: According to Jon Emanuel, the exec chef of Project Angel Heart, who also did a Chef and Tell interview, that would be me, for which I'm very thankful -- but I digress. I've really enjoyed seeing what comes out of Michael Long's kitchen at Opus. His presentations are so unique -- like plates from San Francisco, Chicago or New York City. I have to give shout-outs, too, to the multitude of sous chefs, exec sous chefs and brigades of cooks -- the unsung heroes -- of independent restaurants and hotel culinary crews. They're the backbone of this industry, and not only to they support the guy whose name is embroidered on his jacket, but they're often responsible for the innovations on the plate.

You're making a hamburger. What's on it? In seventh and eighth grade, I was the kid putting together the cheeseburger stacked with all sorts of stuff -- pepperoni pizza, bacon, tater tots, ice cream, PB&J, pasta and the occasional arachnid in other words, anything that fit in between the buns. Now it would likely be a blue cheese, bacon and foie gras burger.

Guiltiest food pleasure: A full-on twelve- or sixteen-ounce slab of foie gras, maybe with an Osetra caviar beurre blanc.

You're at the market. What do you buy two of? Six-packs of Peroni.

Best culinary tip for a home cook:Don't fear the recipe, unless it's that precise baking science stuff. Ingredients can be massaged, but technique is timeless.

If you could cook for one famous chef, dead or alive, who would it be? James Beard, but not at the James Beard House, or anywhere fancy like that. I simply read his book, Delights and Prejudices, and was inspired by his life story, which was also interspersed with various familial recipes. It's a very real and down-to-earth read. He writes about the Pacific Northwest, which mirrored my upbringing in New England in many ways.

Favorite Denver restaurant(s) other than your own: I don't get out much, and when I do, I frequent what I am comfortable with. I like Vesta Dipping Grill and Steuben's -- good folks, food and service, and fun atmosphere. The food and service are consistently good at Rioja Elise "Spingy" Wiggins at Panzano serves great grub to dig on, especially her carbonara, which is wicked frickin' awesome, plus she's really supportive of what we're doing at Il Mondo Vecchio TAG is a cool concept and different and the pan-seared scallop dish at Jax rocks. I recently had an exceptional dinner at Elway's Cherry Creek, and I also really like Bones: It's great, and Frank Bonanno has done very well with that concept in particular.

Favorite celebrity chef: John Folse. He wrote the encyclopedia of Cajun cooking, and he's just a good person, not to mention inspiring. My plan is to emulate the success he's achieved and continues to achieve.

Celebrity chef who should shut up: Bobby Flay. He just annoys the piss out of me.

What's your favorite knife? An inexpensive scimitar that I bought from George at Brothers Cutlery he'll give you a deal if you mention my name. It's a great knife that gets the job done. I can dice 250 pounds of Boston butts in about twelve minutes. Trust me: You won't cut any quicker or better with some expensive, fancy-schmancy knife.

Hardest lesson you've learned: Making it through my teens and twenties and getting out of south Florida alive. Let's just say I've built up a tolerance.

What's next for you? Outside of global salumi domination, what else is there? Actually, there is one thing: I want to cruise Baja in my jeep.

Keep Westword Free. Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.

Friday, October 21, 2011

I love beets and my first souffle ever!

I went through the Nov's Food and Wine Magazine and saw the recipe for Roasted Beets & Carrots with Goat Cheese Dressing. We made it last night with steak & frites and will definitely make it again! We cut the recipe by half and also skipped step 4 since I didn't want to eat the beet tops. I love beets.

For dessert, I wanted to try my hand at making a souffle. It was success, and my souffles rose. So exciting. We did a quarter of the recipe for this one since I only wanted to make 2.

If you're in Denver, check out 2 places

Just got back from Denver, and I have 2 places that I'd HIGHLY recommend going to.

For Late Night Drinks
The first is Green Russell which was recommended to me. It's in Larimer Square, and is a little hard to find because it's down a corridor and then down some stairs. Thank goodness I asked the hostess exactly where it was when I made a reservation (reservations are a must to get in) because I think it'd would've taken us some time to find the place. We went down the stairs and thought we were in the wrong place because there wasn't any signage with the 'Green Russell' anywhere. We almost went back up to make sure we were in the right place until the hostess came and got us. She took us through a swinging 'pie shop' door and led us into a super cool, dark, Prohibition-feel underground SPEAKEASY!

I wish I could've taken photos, but cell phones were only allowed in a phone booth. The bartenders all dressed in Prohibition-era wear and were extremely skilled. While there were a number of cool drinks

mainly brown spirits based on the menu, the server said that we could talk to the bartender who would concoct a drink based on our preferences. A couple of people with me did this and enjoyed their drinks so much so that they ordered another. I ordered a drink that had chartreuse, lime juice, bitters, gin (or maybe it was vodka), ginger beer, alldram spice, and some other things I wasn't familiar with. It was amazing. . . had all of my favorite things in it (ginger, lime, and spice). The ice in my drink was a ball that they had chipped from a large block of ice.

We also ordered a slice of banana pie which they're known for which was delish.

By the way, the restaurant is named after William Green Russell, a Colorado gold miner from the 1850s.

For Breakfast, Lunch or Dinner
For breakfast, lunch or dinner, check out Panzano at the Hotel Monaco (a Kimpton hotel) downtown. It was the 'perfect restaurant' -- hip and trendy but very comfortable and not pretentious and the service and food were amazing. Wish there was a restaurant like that near where we live. It was an interesting layout with the bar on one side, the open kitchen in the middle with some tables in front of it, and then the rest of the dining room with another open kitchen on the other side. While I only went for breakfast twice, the food was great. They serve organic and locally sourced food.

Their website says:
Named one of "America's Top Restaurants 2011" by Zagat, given "4 Stars" by 5280 magazine and called "Best Italian Restaurant" by Denver Westword, the awards and accolades are ever-growing for Panzano and Chef Elise Wiggins. And it's no wonder Denver loves Panzano's fine dining. Northern Italian dishes show contemporary flair, showcasing local ingredients while award-winning wines from Italy and beyond grace the wine list. Signature cocktails shine and savvy service prevails in the lively dining room.

Work Options for Women (WOW) is happy to announce the opening of Cafe United!

Come see us at the Mile High United Way Morgridge Center for Community Change at 711 Park Avenue West #180. Cafe United will be serving coffee, breakfast and lunch from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Friday.

At Cafe United, WOW will be able to offer students a higher level of training including barista, catering, and supervisory skills training. By obtaining these additional skill sets, and by having real-life experience in these roles, WOW students will become more competitive in the food service industry and be able to seek jobs that pay a higher wage.

Also, 100% of the proceeds from your purchase will benefit Work Options for Women’s mission to help impoverished women gain the skills and confidence they need to work their way out of poverty and become gainfully and permanently employed in the food service industry.

Finally, please consider supporting Cafe United on Facebook. Go to and click the like button to get the latest new from Cafe United right to your news-feed.

We hope to see you at Cafe United soon!

8. Del Frisco’s

For years Denver diners have been making it a point to eat at Del Frisco’s. Known as one of the best steakhouses in the country it was impossible to not place them on this list. This beautiful establishment is the definition of upscale dining in this great city. Despite the appearance of only catering to a more affluent customer base, Del Frisco’s treats all of its guests to a wonderful meal and experience. Don’t wait for that next special occasion, call today to reserve a table and enjoy.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Yao Ming + Wine = Yao Family Wines

Is this as funny to you as it is to me?

Yao Ming Courts China's Wine Boom
Source: WSJ
Nov 28th

Chinese NBA star Yao Ming is launching his own California winery as China's thirst for wine intensifies. The former basketball pro speaks to The Wall Street Journal's Jason Chow.

While Yao Ming was growing up in Shanghai, wine was served with ice cubes. It wasn't until the 7-foot-6-inch Chinese basketball star spent time with National Basketball Association teammate Dikembe Mutombo, a 7-foot-2-inch Congolese player, that he began to appreciate wine.

"I always watched him at our dinners and I'd sometimes ask him 'Why are you doing that?'" said Mr. Yao, swirling an imaginary glass. "I was just trying to copy him."

Now retired and living in his native Shanghai, Mr. Yao is an unlikely connoisseur and a trailblazer on the Chinese wine scene. The 31-year-old is launching his own Californian winery geared exclusively for the Chinese market this week called Yao Family Wines.

Distributed by French beverage giant Pernod Ricard SA, bottles in the first 5,000-case run will be labeled simply Yao Ming and aimed at the top end of the market.

The wine, made from cabernet sauvignon grapes harvested in 2009 from California's Napa Valley, is priced at 1,775 yuan (US$289) a bottle. (The price includes a 27% import duty and a 17% sales tax.) A second wine, called Yao Family Reserve, will be released later this year, and its small 500-case production will be even pricier.

"I really like Napa Valley," said the former center. "California represents vacation, casual [living], sunshine-everything related to a good quality of life." Yao Family Wines currently doesn't own any vineyards in California, but is aiming to acquire land in the next few years.

California couldn't have a better pitchman in China than Mr. Yao. He is one of the country's biggest stars and is credited with boosting China's interest in the NBA. During his nine seasons with the Houston Rockets, his games were broadcast on national television in China, and he was selected to carry China's flag during the opening ceremonies at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. He has endorsed everything from Apple Inc. products to his father's Chinese restaurant in Houston.

Mr. Yao's appreciation for wine grew in parallel with its acceptance in his home country-wine consumption in China doubled from 2005 to 2009. But wine imported into China came predominantly from France, and he spotted a market opportunity for Californian wines.

Mr. Yao asked BDA Sports International, the agency that represents him, to explore the idea of starting his own Napa Valley winery. In 2009, with BDA's assistance, he found a team of wine experts to help him realize his vision, including winemaker Tom Hinde, who had made wines for Flowers Vineyard and Winery and Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates. "We tasted a lot of wine together and got to know him in a way so I could express his personality in the wine," said Mr. Hinde. "He's physically imposing, but he's also very personable and gentle. We wanted to capture that in the wine."

Mr. Hinde insists Yao Family Wines isn't a short-lived bid to capitalize on China's wine boom and the star's celebrity before either of them wane. He said the business plan is based on a 10-year timeline.

Mr. Hinde and four others involved with the winery are minority shareholders in the venture, while Mr. Yao is the principal owner. Neither Mr. Yao nor his winemaking team disclosed how much has been invested, though wine-industry experts estimate that it requires $2 million to $5 million to get a winery to reach full production.

While most of the wine sold in China is from domestic sources, the imported market has grown dramatically. Bottled-wine imports-as opposed to cheap bulk wine that is imported in large tanks for bottling in China-grew 240% from 2008 to 2010, according to data from China Customs.

China has a heavy bias toward French wines. Last year, France led bottled-wine imports with a 47% market share. Australia ranked a distant second with 16% of the market. The U.S. came in sixth, trailing Italy, Spain and Chile, with a 6.4% share.

Chinese collectors have bid top dollar for the world's most sought-after bottles of Bordeaux and Burgundy at auctions in Hong Kong, putting the city ahead of London and New York in sales. In September, an anonymous Chinese bidder spent $539,280 on a single lot of 300 bottles of Château Lafite-Rothschild wine at a Sotheby's wine auction in Hong Kong.

Mr. Yao's new winery isn't his only business venture. He is the owner of his first professional basketball team, the Shanghai Sharks, and an investor in a digital-music site called Mr. Yao is also attending classes at Shanghai Jiaotong University. He is going to miss a day of school this week for one of the many launch events scheduled for the new winery.

"I'll need an extra bottle for my history professor so he can give me a good grade and let me skip his class," Mr. Yao said.

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