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21 Chefs: Magic Makers | The 2021 Indulgence Issue


Our BOCO chefs – from established names to newcomers in the local cuisine scene – share their favorite dishes for Yellow Scene’s readers.

Daniel Asher Hummus

Ash’Karra | Boulder

Daniel Asher doesn’t talk about food without talking about travel. In our conversation, he described an extensive trip to Israel, enjoying the walled cities there, and tasting hummus.

“When I was 19, I traveled to Israel to my grandmother’s and ended up staying for half a year,” he said. “They took me to a portside city, Akko, which is legendary for its hummus. They handed me this plate, I tried it, and it was a transcendent moment. I couldn’t figure out how it could be the same food I’ve had in the states.”

Asher described a flavor profile with an intense hit of sesame from the tahini and a beautiful acidity from the lemon. The chickpeas were whipped, aioli-like, beautifully creamy, bound with a beautiful olive element.

Asher then finished his thoughts, “this is why travel is so important. You connect with food and the origins of food and it’s a different experience everywhere you go.”

Jason Castle Shoyu / Duck Ramen

Birdhouse | Erie

We live just down the street from Birdhouse and my family is crazy about ramen. That’s thanks to chef Jason Castle who describes his soy-roasted duck ramen. Shoyu, as one of his favorite things on the menu.

Castle told me that what he loves about the Shoyu is how it showcases duck in a new way. “Traditionally, people want a rare or mid-rare duck, but with the curing and braising process we do, it makes a difference. We slow roast it after a 48-hour cure and baste it with tamari every 20 minutes. The meat is warmed in its own rendered fat prior to being served.”

Though Castle was kind enough to share any more about what makes this ramen so unique, he wasn’t about to get too detailed heavy. Ramens are different depending on those who make it, and any of them at Birdhouse reflect what Castle brings to his diners.

Patrick and Lisa Balcom – Tomato Pie, Donuts

Farow | Niwot

I first met Patrick and Lisa at a kitchen table with the owners of Buckner Family Ranch when I was on a photoshoot. When they heard I was a food writer, the couple hinted they had something in the works. Now their restaurant, one of the newest on our list, is all about well-made food with carefully sourced ingredients from local farms and ranches. Farms like Buckner Ranch or Ollin Farms. To achieve this sourcing, they pride themselves on keeping strong, close relationships with all their food providers.

Just as they were opening, I had the chance to ask what their choice for favorite items that they want diners to experience. Patrick’s was tomato pie. He said it reminds him of summers in Charleston, a city that he said “has an amazing food community of both chefs and farmers growing and collaborating to have the best ingredients.”

Lisa answered with enthusiasm and a lot of sugar. “Donuts,” she said. “They require making the perfect dough and fermenting it overnight to bring out the flavor, then rolling, proofing, and frying them. It’s such satisfying labor of love.”

Leroy Alvarado – Anything from his Grill

La Vita Bella | Longmont

You heard it here. La Vita Bella isn’t a coffee shop anymore. It’s a white table cloth establishment with farm-to-table ingredients. One of the forces behind this change is chef Leroy Alvarado, a man who is passionate about using techniques.

Alvarado’s favorite thing to do is bringing out a big, black grill that’s made out of a 1,000 water tank. He stores it at home and brings it to the restaurant when he wants to make something special. “I smoke all of our meats on it. I’ve smoked a whole pig on it. I can actually do two or three whole pigs on it. It’s both a smoker and a grill, so I can do either.”

This focus on grilling and smoking comes from a year of Alvarado cooking throughout the Southwest, highlighted by years of cooking under Fernando Olea and being part owner of Georgia Restaurant in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Now, he’s making Longmont his home and bringing all that he has learned to diners here.

Alec Schuler – Romesco Benedict

Tangerine | Boulder, Lafayette, & Longmont

It can be a lot of fun to ask Alec Schuler about his favorite menu item. In my case, he answered with three words: “I love benedicts.” His ultimate choice is the Romesco Benedict where the traditional eggs are topped with red pepper almond Romesco sauce, brie, spinach, and caramelized onions.

Schuler explained that he loves it, in part, because of who he learned it from. Between 2001 and 2003 he was Sous Chef at Au Bouchon in the Wallingford District of Seattle under Chef de Cuisine Christian Potvin. “He was awesome and still one of my inspirations in the kitchen. His mom was Spanish and she inspired him to make it. It’s been on menus of all my restaurants that I’ve ever opened.”

Ryan Taylor – Cochinito Pavil

Hickory & Ash | Broomfield

At 15, Ryan Taylor started cooking for his father at Restaurant Kevin Taylor. As he tells it, “I found it to be a great place to start. I worked my way up over three or four years.” If there’s one thing Taylor believes he learned from his Dad, he says “it’s his OCD. His perfectionism and attention to detail about food. Making sure every plate is perfect, whether it’s a side salad or a six-course tasting menu.”

Taylor told us that he loves to wow people with the bold flavors of real Mexican food, but he cites his favorite food to prepare as Cochinito Pavil, a meal that’s cooked in a hole in the ground that’s lined with banana leaves then covered with colas and roasted overnight. In Denver, he confesses he makes it while camping or creates a minimalized version in his oven.

“When its time to eat, it’s a very communal meal,” Taylor says.

Jules Lieb – Buddha Bowl

Morning Glory Café | Lafayette

As I talk to Jules Lieb, a few things become immediately clear. She’s passionate about her food, honest about her thought processes, and serious about nourishing customers. That’s why she says that while she loves cooking fish, her ultimate choice for her favorite dish is the Buddha Bowl.

“I love it. It encompasses many different colors. It’s just beautiful and it’s component-heavy.” She goes on to list an impressive roster of eight ingredients that just cover the vegetables in the dish. Lieb is so passionate about this dish she’s teaching others how to make it. That’s not something that every chef does with a signature item, but even pandemic-related barriers and a busy summer aren’t stopping her. She wants the public to reap the benefits of the dish and she’ll be posting the class details on her website soon. Look for them.

Hugo Meyer – Gambas al Ajillo

Piripi | Erie

Shrimp is a fairly common ingredient that a lot of diners enjoy. But there’s shrimp, and then there’s better shrimp. Always careful about how he sources his food, Hugo Meyer has found a Patagonian red shrimp and serves it nightly on his small plate, Gambas al Ajillo. It’s his choice for a favorite dish.

This small plate is a reflection of two things that Meyer cares about – flavors and making the best international food sources available to customers. Over years of cooking in multiple countries, he’s developed contacts that allow him to do this. “There’s a difference in this seafood in its blood that makes it red and makes it similar to a Mediterranean red shrimp. Sourcing something like it was important to us.”

Isha Desbin and Char Desbin – Pastelillos, Fried Chicken

Rae’s and Kay’s | Boulder

For many people, including me, food is love. That sentiment rings loud and clear when Chef and Co-Owner Isha Desbin talks about Rae’s and Kay’s, the eatery she’s opened with co-chef, co-owner, and her mom, Char Desbin. The pair offers Puerto Rican and soul food to a customer base in Boulder that can’t find those options in a lot of other places.

As I talk to Desbin, it’s clear that she and her mother love to show hospitality to all. Their menu is lengthy and, while they love everything that they’ve added to it, they’ve still got ideas about their favorite dishes. In each case, their preference has a lot to do with spice. That doesn’t necessarily mean heat, it means flavor.

“I love the pastelillos,” Desbin says without pause. “The hand pies are so traditional, and they liven up your mouth. They have so much charisma. My mom loves to cook her fried chicken. For her, it’s all about the seasoning. It’s something she’s really worked hard on.”

Paul Bourrillion – Steaks with Italian food

740 Front  |  Louisville

Choosing a favorite dish wasn’t easy for any of the chefs I’d talked to, but it was possibly most difficult for Paul Bourrillion. Ultimately he said, “There’s been a range of things I’ve cooked that I like. Right now, we’re enjoying going back to my roots in a steakhouse and pairing it with Italian food.”

He shared that he’d cooked Italian food on the West Coast just south of San Francisco for decades but came back to Denver for family. Now, 740 Front Street retains a huge focus on steak. “We have a selection of aged, hand-cut steaks, filets, strip steaks, and Waygu beef,” he said, adding that he ultimately wants to pair it with Italian food which he also loves to make. In the end, he added, “the key is to do everything fresh. That’s how to make delicious food.”

Caroline Curtis – Mushroom Crusted Swordfish

Martini’s Bistro | Longmont

Martini’s Bistro is a Longmont institution and I’ve been there multiple times for family celebrations. It was big news when Sara Morgan took ownership of it as Mark and Carmen Sample stepped away in 2019 just as COVID-19 was becoming a factor in businesses. With reopening last spring, Martini’s bounced back, and Morgan said that this year, revenue is more than 80 percent higher than the restaurant’s 2019 numbers.

The chef who is keeping up with these kinds of numbers is Colorado native Caroline Curtis. She has previously worked at Chimney Park in Windsor prior to leading the kitchen at Martini’s just as the shutdowns were easing.

Curtis’ favorite thing to serve to diners so far has been her mushroom-crusted swordfish. “It features Hazel Dell mushrooms and heirloom tomatoes. It’s one of the things on our menu that showcases how we work with local purveyors and how we prepare all our ingredients with simplicity.”

Fausto Felix – Gourmet Tacos

The Dugout | Erie

When I head to The Dugout, chances are that I’m going to order fish tacos. They’re healthy, flavorful and when I have them grilled with the mango salsa on top, they’re some of the best three-bite meals I can find for a happy hour.

Dugout head chef and owner Fausto Felix said that they’re also one of his favorite things to make. No surprise there. “It’s one of our specialties and besides, everybody loves tacos,” he said. “To me, I love to re-do the concept of a taco. Everybody thinks they know what it means, but we make it different.”

I pressed Felix to say more about his choice and what makes some tacos better than others. He said more simplicity can give tacos a better taste. But besides keeping things simple, there’s something else. “Just having ingredients with a twist gives it a better taste.” Simple tacos, with a curveball. Sounds about right.

Bradford Heap – Plant-Based Cassoulet / Gnocchi Bolognese

SALT | Boulder

Bradford Heap is known to Boulder County diners. From his time at Colterra in Niwot, the Chautauqua Dining Hall, and Full Moon Grill, hungry diners have filled the seats at his restaurant again and again. But my impression about him when I talked with him across a streetside table at his current restaurant, Salt Bistro, can be distilled to a single word: consideration.

The two dishes he picked as some of his favorites to make for guests, the gnocchi bolognese and a plant-based cassoulet, reflect this consideration.

“Peasant food for me is the thing that is my favorite type of food for me to make,” said Heap. “I love the story of bolognese because basically, it’s for the field workers who include a nice piece of skirt steak in it. I love the amount of umami, of flavor, and the amount of luxury that’s in that dish. I also love the idea of not squandering anything. These animals had a life and my grass-fed beef had a really good life, with one really bad day. I respect that.”

The ingredients used at Salt are carefully selected to reflect Heap’s belief in ethical food sourcing. He told me, “I began reading about the fact that it takes 1800 gallons of water to produce one pound of red meat. This was back in 2006 when I bought Colterra. Then when I opened this restaurant here, I really started looking at plant-based food and seeing that as the future of food. That’s where it’s all gotta go. There’s no question, so I’ve been endeavoring to make really good plant-based food. Like the cassoulet. It’s super popular here.”

James Ross – Margherita Pizza

Rosalee’s Pizzeria | Longmont

Rosalee’s Pizzeria knows about community. One of my memories of the pandemic is walking down Main Street and seeing how creatively they used their walk-up window to connect with the community. On a cold night this winter, servers in Santa hats waved cheerfully at passersby and their cheer was genuine. It made things better.

But none of their community-mindedness would work without them being very good at the core of what they do – creating and serving great pizza.

Chef and owner James Ross is responsible for the pies that come out of the oven. When asked, he said his favorite thing to serve to customers is one of the simplest things on the menu: the Margherita Pizza. “It highlights the cornerstone of our focus on pizza. There’s nowhere to hide. The dough, the sauce, cheese, and basil are all on display and with no distractions.”

Ross offers a pause then he finishes his thought, “at its best, it’s simplistic and delicious.”

Justin Hirschfield – Pecan and Panko-Crusted Steelhead Trout

1914 House | Niwot

Last spring, restaurants were cautiously but hopefully evolving their operations to move out of pandemic mode. I talked with owner Nick Mastronardi at that time, and he was optimistic about using the relaunch to change up a few of how they were doing things. Without making a big deal about it, the restaurant wanted to evolve to a place where meat wasn’t the star of a menu and pork isn’t available at all. Not. Even. Bacon.

A few months later, things are working out. The dining room is crowded and, according to Mastronardi’s daughter Isabelle, diners have been loving the plant-based options. That’s partially thanks to chef Justin Hirschfield who has one of his favorite dishes as pecan and panko-crusted trout.

Hirschfield loves to make it for a simple reason: “It’s one of the original dishes in the restaurant and people always want it.” He elaborates, “It’s been through some tweaks but no matter how it evolves people always want it.”

Hirschfield said that’s partly because it’s an ocean trout, sourced from the Shetland Islands. It’s pink, looking almost like salmon, which is something he said a lot of diners question their servers about. It’s presented over rice and a small amount of a cream sauce with root vegetables. It’s something to savor, take your time with.

Maki Fairbacks – Custard

The Enchanted Oven | Broomfield

Maki Fairbacks, the Chef/Owner of The Enchanted Oven has included custard as the cornerstone of a lot of what you’ll find in the pastry cases when you go there. There’s custard in cream puffs, cakes, and eclairs. But one pastry, her Japanese-inspired custard cream buns, are the inspiration for all of it and the reason why custard is one of her favorite things to make.

I talked after she offered me one of her custard cream buns in the middle of a Saturday when there was a pause in business. Served on a flower-patterned china dessert plate,  it tasted as sweet and delicate as it looked. I may have eaten it in under two minutes, which made her smile.

Maki told us that years ago when her daughter Elissa was young, she was a translator and spent a lot of time in Japan. She fell in love with the cream buns there but realized that they probably wouldn’t be available in the U.S. So, she taught herself how to make them and in the process grew the roots of a business that would eventually become The Enchanted Oven.

Now, it’s this same custard that she uses across the board, whenever a pastry calls for it. Between the custard, the lighter whipped cream frosting and the fresh fruits, many of her desserts are delicate, sweet, not overpowering sugar and starch bombs. That’s just how she likes it.

Tsehay B. Hailu – Red Lentils

Ras Kassa’s | Lafayette

Laughter. That’s one of the first things you notice when you speak with Tsehay Hailu about the food she makes. Hailing from Ethiopia, she’s been the chef and owner of Ras Kassa’s for decades – since 1988 – and she is perfectly content in this role.  In fact, she even said she’s seeing the grandkids of some of her first customers. “You think I would be tired of it by now, but I’m not,” she said. “The restaurant brings me overwhelming happiness.”

Like other chefs, Hailu has a tough time settling on one dish that she likes to prepare. After so much time in the kitchen, it’s understandable why. But then she settles on something on a side dish that steals the show. The red lentils. “I never get tired of them. They can be made mild or spicy. It’s traditional. Completely vegan. Customers love them,” she says.

As I talked to her about food, the topic of what it’s like to run the restaurant came up and she said it was like having an always open dining room at home. “It’s very comfortable. Our customers are like family who comes back, again and again.”

Steve Scott – French Country Loaf

Babettes | Longmont

I caught Steve Scott when he’d been in his bakery since two in the morning on a day when Boulder County was about to return to mandated indoor mask requirements.  He somehow looked tired and energized at the same time. He also made time to talk to me about food and what his favorite thing to make was: his country loaf.

To Scott, one of the things he likes most about the loaf is that making it epitomized all the reasons he ever got into the food business in the first place. “It is what it is. It’s a living thing and I’m always in awe of what comes out of the oven every day. It’s going to be slightly different every day and it definitely leads you.”

Maybe because it’s because he was way too tired, but Steve kept talking to me about making the bread. I’ve tried similar things in my home kitchen and I appreciated every word. “I can follow the same procedure for how we feed it, but when the weather changes, it changes. Even when I change, it’s different.”

Then he gave a final thought on what might be one of the biggest reasons he loves to make this bread. “As much as we want to think that we’re in charge of it, we’re along for the ride.”

Photo: Marianne Martin

Linda Hampsten Fox – Pappardelle with Wild Boar and Dark Chocolate

The Bindery | Boulder & Denver

Linda is well-known to people who know food around Boulder. She has cooked as a private chef for Jane Goodall both in Boulder and in Los Angeles. She’s also worked with the Foresters and E-Town, cooking for musicians who come to the area. And when Joe and Peg Romano needed someone to cater their daughter’s wedding, they turned to her.

Originally from the East Coast, Hampsten-Fox lived in Boulder since she was 17. “I feel in love with it and ended up deciding I would go to school here. I stayed in Boulder after graduating,” she said. She lived in Southern Switzerland and Tuscany for five years but came back to Boulder to raise her daughter here.

As her daughter has grown and moved to college, Hampsten-Fox continued to be a private chef in the area and opened her restaurant, The Bindery. And her favorite dish to make for customers there is what she’s described as one of the most traditionally prepared dishes she offers. It’s her pappardelle with wild boar and dark chocolate.

“The sauce is very luxurious,” she explains. “It’s a tomato base with wild boar and spices. We’ve done this dish every year since we opened. I appreciate how it’s so traditional. People think we’re creating some kind of crazy dish, but I know it’s hundreds of years old. I love it.”

Jose Serna – Carne Asada

Blue Corn Tacos | Longmont

If I ever have the choice between standard white tortillas or grainier blue corn, I’ll almost always choose the latter. I like their texture and it feels like I’m having something more substantial than plain chips that are often more widely available. That’s why I was excited to find a restaurant that was entirely devoted to the darker, starchier ingredient with their taco style, tacos acorazados. It’s a kind of taco that comes from Central Mexico.

Chef Jose Serna owns the restaurant with his wife, Aidee. The pair manages a lot of traffic on their Main Street location – especially on weekends when they don’t even seem to get a break during what’s a mid-afternoon lull for many others.

Serna says that even during the busiest times, one of his favorite things to make is Carne Asada. It’s a Mexican restaurant standard but it’s a classic for a reason. With whole strips of steak it’s also hearty and flavorful. “It’s one of my favorite things to eat,” Serna says. “Maybe that’s why I like to make it for others so much. It’s also one of the most popular. It is in a homemade blue corn tortilla and filled with meat, refried beans, a bed of rice, onions, jalapeños, and cilantro, and a scoop of guacamole. It’s a complete meal in one taco – grains, meats, and vegetables.”

Casey Easton – Chile Rellenos

Food Lab | Boulder

Casey talked to me a bit about her philosophy that food is at its best when it’s not intimidating. In fact, she says that belief is one of the core values behind Food Lab and the reason why she opened it.

“My approach is usually simple. I love cooking with pure olive oil. The right salt. I think that people that try to do too much to their food, it can make everything seem overwhelming. I try to steer people to good ingredients and fewer of them. Things they can find without a lot of stress.”

Easton’s favorite thing to cook is northern New Mexican food with lots of chilis and one often complicated dish stands out for her. “I love to cook Chile Rellenos. People shy away from it because there are so many steps, but it really can be simple.”

In the style of a true cooking school teacher, she gives an overview of her technique. “I dredge the chilis in cornmeal to give it more of a crunch, then I pan-sear them and make a red chili sauce to go with it. One of the things I love is that you can really taste the chili, which is the star of the show, rather than just the fry. There’s a nice corn and chili flavor in it. They’re fairly strong flavors, but they go together really well. Keeping things simple in the ingredient profile really works.”


Deborah Cameron
Deb brings a passion for community journalism and for the local food scene. She started out as an intern and over the years grew into our current Cuisine Editor. She has appeared in multiple publications including the Longmont Leader, The Left Hand Valley Courier, Ms. Mayhem, Finance101, and Ask.com. When not writing she's eating, road tripping, dog-parking, or watching high school softball. She moved to Colorado from Seattle in the early 2000s after spending a year traveling the U.S. in a teal Ford Escort hatchback. She lives with her husband, two teenagers, and a rescue dog named Charlie.

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