Morelia Chapin loved food from the very beginning. That is, from the seed to the vegetable. As she describes her fondness for the process of it—“of starting the seeds, growing them and then being able to eat off your garden every day”—the soft curves of her face hide her edge. That combined with the gravel in her lulled voice makes her look and sound like an angel who shoots whiskey. And it accounts for her own growing pains—the same ones that made her discover her passion for food in the first place.
“Let’s just say I was…” her tone changing to mischievous, “a troublesome child in my teens.” It’s her preface to the not-so-straight path that would see her in a Quaker boarding school in New Hampshire. There, the curriculum was centered around farm work.
“Also, there were no outside employees besides the students and so we all did all the cooking. I started doing more and more meals and that’s when I decided what I wanted to do.” Revealing her realistic nature void of illusions, Morelia discloses why she didn’t pursue cooking right away. “It just seemed like a difficult industry. A thankless one.”
Instead, she bounced from college to college, pursuing different career paths. While attending Friends World College, she spent each year in a different country —India and Costa Rica—before moving on to study at the Culinary Institute of America. She’s worked in biscuit factories, coffee shops and kitchens in Maine, Kentucky, New Hampshire and now Colorado. “I knew I wanted to cook from a long time ago. I just thought it soundedlike a really challenging career. Not only that, it’s a male dominated career.”
On a Wednesday night, the front of the house at Empire Lounge and Restaurant is fuzzy with chatter, hinting at a high-powered kitchen resembling more closely a crisis center at full throttle. Behind the swinging doors, Morelia is likely shouting orders, throwing a dish towel over her shoulder, making sure the food get’s out on time. But for now, she’s sitting back, explaining why half of her customers are regulars and why more than half of all chefs are men. “If you’re a woman you cook all the time, but you cook at home. I think it’s just a cultural role that we need to shake off.”
Morelia’s philosophy on cooking seems to be channeled from her essence: “Keep it simple.” Or more specifically, no more than five ingredients. “They need to be fresh,” she adds — like the vegetables in the garden where she first discovered her passion for food. And also where she learned that a seed must be planted in the dirt for it to grow.