Denver’s Decade-Long Dining Diva
That’s diva in the most distinguished sense, as Chef Jen Jasinski is as hospitable in her personality as in her acclaimed restaurants.
Jennifer Jasinski’s story is like the American Dream, chef style. Since opening her first, successful restaurant, Rioja, 10 years ago, Chef Jasinski has built a modest empire in downtown Denver with four strong restaurants, each with its own unique concept, menu, chef de cuisine, and cult following.
The timing was spot on in 2003 for the Santa Barbara, California, native when she opened Rioja with her colleague and now 12-year business partner, Beth Gruitch, as Denver was just becoming a budding restaurant scene. Since then, she and other chefs have helped the city grow into a food and dining destination for foodies near and far.
But timing’s not everything. From the get-go, Jasinski has made it her mission to focus on consistency, creativity, and quality—featuring local ingredients cooked with love and care. She has spent more than a decade working with farms and producers in Denver and the surrounding region, blending authentic Spanish flavors and cooking techniques at Rioja with the foods that define the Rockies.
Jasinski’s attention to detail makes sense, considering she made the dean’s list at The Culinary Institute of America before the age of 21, and later spent a decade working with Wolfgang Puck, helping open—and in some instances lead—the kitchens at Puck’s Postrio in San Francisco, Spago in Vegas and Chicago, and Granita in Malibu. In 2013, Jasinski earned top honors from the James Beard Foundation as the first Denver chef to be named Best Chef: Southwest. Just this year, she was named a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Chef award. Jasinski’s cooking prowess has also earned her celebrity status on TV, when she was a finalist on Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters” in its fifth season.
“Wolfgang was my mentor and my culinary role model,” Jasinski says. “Some of the most important things he taught me are to always take care of the guest and make sure they are happy—if they want chicken soup, we make them chicken soup. He also taught me the definition of true hospitality and how to have an eye for detail. He could be in the kitchen and see a table that was crooked way off in the dining room. He always wanted to make sure everything was just right.”
Denver’s natural landscape and quality of life drew her there, winning out over the big and boisterous culinary cities like New York, Chicago, or even San Francisco and L.A., where she had spent time. Prior to opening Rioja, she served as the executive chef from 2000 to 2003 at Panzano, already a Denver institution, but she took it to the next level. And that is where she forged a friendship with Gruitch, then the general manager, and the two decided to go off on their own, eventually naming their restaurant group Crafted Concepts.
Even after the Spanish- and Mediterranean-inspired, eclectic Rioja enjoyed instant, lasting success, the duo didn’t rush into a rapid expansion. Instead, they have carefully considered the market and researched clientele for culinary gaps before coming up with new, completely individual concepts—from a French bistro to an American tavern, and most recently, a seafood house and oyster bar—turning the historic Larimer Square into a dining destination. Sometimes, real estate has driven the concept more than their own creativity, based on what they thought potential customers were missing in a given location.
“We try to think, what does Denver need at the moment?” Chef Jasinski explains, adding that they also step back and contemplate the group’s needs. “Are we ready to have another restaurant, or will we be stretching ourselves too thin? We’ve turned down some deals, but we feel there’s still room to grow.”
For their newest restaurant, Stoic & Genuine, the seafood house that opened in 2014, Jasinski and Gruitch took inspiration from New York City’s Grand Central Oyster Bar, located in Grand Central Station. However, they also put their own spin on the concept. Even though Jasinski craved opening a taqueria in the space, many operators in Denver had already gone that route, and there were fewer fresh seafood choices in the area.
At Stoic & Genuine, Jasinski blends both East Coast and West Coast delicacies for a bi-coastal effect while also paying homage to Denver’s geographic location as a fly-over middle ground and busy airport bypass. She even got to put to work her longtime vision for a granita bar, with rotating flavors like berry-lemon, lychee-chocolate for dessert, and cocktail variations mixed with citrus juices, Fresno chili, and tequila (somewhat like a frozen margarita).
This year, Bistro Vendöme, Jasinski’s modern French restaurant that opened across the street from Rioja, celebrates its 10-year anniversary and continues to experience long waits on weekends. Euclid Hall Bar + Kitchen, down the street, has been open nearly six years and also sees its share of regulars: a rowdy crowd looking for lots of flowing craft beer, lively music, and edgy bar food. The menu features a selection of homemade sausages and poutine, plus pad Thai pig ears, and brûléed center-cut bone marrow bones with a “crafted, not cranked out” motto.
When it comes to menu development, Jasinski doesn’t work alone, preferring to team up with the chefs in her restaurants, in particular Tim Kuklinski, chef de cuisine at Rioja. “We get inspired by foods coming into season, whether that’s ramps, fava beans, and nettles in the spring, or different fruits in the summer,” she says.
That’s easier now, since after years of working together, local farmers come to Jasinski’s team, bringing them the first pick and even crops they’ve grown just for them. “For Euclid Hall, we buy four whole pigs a week and one steer from a local producer,” she says. And then there’s the local wine producer who brings goodies from his hobby garden.
“Rioja is my home base—I’m here a lot, but I get together with my chefs at each restaurant once a week, and I taste a lot of food,” she says. No micro-manager, Chef Jasinski embodies the things she admired most about Puck: that he was a great chef but also great with people. Similarly, Jasinski is known for her friendly smile and warm, welcoming demeanor—and for leading a strong team, but more by setting an example, building respect, and fostering inclusivity than by sharp tones and sternness.
“I don’t want my team to be like me or be puppets of me; I want them to be independent and free-thinkers who share in our core values and our restaurant family,” she says.
Recently, Jasinski and Gruitch remodeled the interior of Rioja and, though they change the menu often, made some additional adjustments to keep it fresh. Still, their regulars wouldn’t let them remove the artichoke tortellini that’s been on the menu since day one: braised artichoke hearts whipped into a light mousse with goat cheese tucked into homemade pasta in an artichoke broth with artichoke chunks, chips, and a drizzle of white truffle oil. Her craveable, sweet goat cheese and black mission fig–filled beignets haven’t gone away, either. “It’s very easy to become complacent and routine,” Chef Jasinski says, something she and her restaurant have proved to be anything but.