This Wolfgang Puck acolyte brings home boatloads of accolades from culinary critics the country over —all the while running things behind the kitchen doors at three top Mile High restaurants.
By Dave Muscari
The story goes something like this: A prestigious chef starts her career in the family kitchen, cooking out of necessity. Growing up in a one-parent household, she was one of three children, two girls and one boy; all took turns preparing meals. Over time, the youngest stood out, fine-tuning her repertoire until she ruled the roost and cooked all the family meals. So begins the culinary legend of Jennifer Jasinski.
Since those salad days in Southern California, Chef Jen, as she’s known, has made quite a reputation both in Colorado and nationally. In 2011, Jasinski was a James Beard Foundation Award semifinalist. She was a finalist last year and again this year competing against top chefs in Austin, Houston and Cave Creek, Arizona. At an awards ceremony in May, Jasinski will learn if she will be named best chef in the Southwest.
Back in 2004, she took the plunge, along with business partner Beth Gruitch, and opened Rioja (1431 Larimer St.), a lovely Mediterranean-influenced restaurant just a few blocks from the city’s Performing Arts District. Later, the pair purchased Bistro Vendôme (1420 Larimer St.), and four years later, opened Euclid Hall Bar & Kitchen (1317 14th St.). These days, all three restaurants enjoy critical acclaim, making routine appearances on “best of” lists all over the city.
This is to say nothing of Jasinski’s stellar reputation within the culinary community itself. Author and PBS television host Christy Rost counts herself a big fan. “There are several [Colorado chefs] that just do amazing work,” she told the magazine. “One of them is Jennifer Jasinski. She’s cooked at the Snowmass Festival — that’s when I first met her. She is a supercreative and wonderful chef, besides being a really nice lady.”
After some food service training in high school and a gig at a local Taco Bell, Jasinski got serious. She studied at Santa Barbara City College in her hometown, then moved to New York City, enrolling in the Culinary Institute of America. She waited tables on campus. She worked at the venerable Rainbow Room on weekends. When she graduated, she signed on full-time at the landmark restaurant and was exposed to top culinary figures including the legendary Wolfgang Puck.
In time, Jasinski tired of the sizzling pace in New York and returned to her home state armed with an ambitious job-hunting strategy: apply for positions at L.A.’s top 10 restaurants. She landed a gig at the Hotel Bel Air where, coincidentally, Puck was consulting. They soon renewed their acquaintance, and for the next decade Puck took Jasinski under his culinary wing. She says he treated her well during a time when the industry wasn’t exactly flooded with female chefs. She traveled across America helping Puck develop and open a series of restaurants. Her credits include an assortment of positions at restaurants: Postrio in San Francisco; Spago in Chicago and Las Vegas; and Granita in Malibu.
In 2000, Jasinski landed at Denver’s Panzano. Colorado Springs native Gruitch was the restaurant’s general manager at the time, and the pair became fast friends. In time, the two women helped turn the Italian ristorante into a lights-out destination, which paved the way for them to open their own place. The rest is history.
At Rioja, Jasinski’s signature Denver restaurant, sample homemade pastas include saffron-rapini ravioli, artichoke tortelloni and Spanish octopus farfalle. The menu boasts inspired entrees such as grilled tea-brined Snake River sturgeon; tender Colorado lamb; pan-roasted venison; and smoked Duroc pork tenderloin. Pastries are also creatively delicious, especially the white and black cheesecake, beignets, a chocolate-caramel napoleon and handmade ice creams and sorbets.
Denver Hotel Magazine checked in with the ultrabusy chef to chat about her influences, cuisine philosophies and being married to another local top chef, Max MacKissock, a James Beard Foundation Award semifinalist this year.
DHM: After years of traveling and opening restaurants with Wolfgang Puck, you made a conscious decision to put down roots in Denver. What about it appealed to you?
JJ: I loved the city of Denver. Its size was perfect, with tons of arts and music and a great outdoors community. I also felt, at the time, that there was room to grow as a chef and restaurateur.
DHM: Are you still in touch with Wolfgang?
JJ: We see each other maybe once a year at a special event or something. He was in town a few years ago and made a special effort to stop by Rioja and eat.
DHM: Your three restaurants all feature different types of cuisine. How does the variety help keep you on your game?
JJ: It’s an avenue to really do almost everything and anything we want…we have a venue for it. If I think of something that does not fit into Rioja’s menu, it probably would fit somewhere else.
DHM: We hear so much about the farm-to-table emphasis in restaurants these days. In an area such as Denver that is a bit geographically isolated, how does that work for you?
JJ: I have had the same philosophy I always had since moving here, which is to buy the best product you can. If it happens to be local, that’s even better. But if I feel that Liberty Farms ducks are the best (which I do), I do not just buy from a local source just to be local. As produce goes, we have tons of great stuff for four to five months out of the year, and I buy as much as possible during that time.
DHM: You have been both a James Beard Foundation Award finalist and semifinalist. That’s rock-star stuff. How do designations like that impact a chef’s career?
JJ: It is awesome to be recognized by the James Beard Foundation. It is great that people around the country have heard of what we do…. It makes me feel great. Everyone likes to be noticed. I think notoriety can help any career because more people are likely to try out your restaurant.
DHM: Congratulations on your recent marriage to Max MacKissock, executive chef at the Squeaky Bean. Two cooks in one family: How does that work? Do you critique each other’s cuisine in helpful ways?
JJ: Max and I really help each other with food and flavors. We are so different in our cooking style, it is great to get another very different perspective. I feel that since we have been together, I have gotten better as a chef and grown more than I would hav