Denver’s Decade-Long Dining Diva

Beignets from Rioja.
Beignets from Rioja. Rioja

That’s diva in the most distinguished sense, as Chef Jen Jasinski is as hospitable in her personality as in her acclaimed restaurants.

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. 


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