Interview with Denver's Unstoppable Chef, Elise Wiggins
Like many people with charisma, Chef Elise Wiggins, carries herself with a comfortable confidence. She is also clearly a determined person. She knows what she wants from life and works relentlessly towards it. She’s worked hard in each and every restaurant she’s spent time at, testing her kitchen skills, experimenting with food, learning to manage people, becoming the best. Elise has won accolades, been offered plum kitchen positions, always managed to keep moving up through the ranks. Yet, contrary to what you might expect of someone well renowned, the obviously gregarious Elise manages to put people immediately at ease with friendly conversation. Despite being incredibly busy she was also willing to sit down and talk frankly with The Daily Meal about her restaurant and her lifelong passion for cooking.
Wiggins currently holds the position of Executive Chef at Italian favorite Panzano, in Denver. Panzano is the in house restaurant for The Hotel Monaco. Owned by Kimpton Hotels & Resorts, The Monaco is part of a small boutique hotel chain; which follows a philosophy of hiring stellar people to provide guests with a unique and high end experience at their properties.
Wiggins told The Daily Meal she has been very happy with the Kimpton way of doing things, "It's like owning your own restaurant. You're independent. You drive the menu; but, like any high end restaurant situation it's also, sink or swim. If you don't do well you won't last." This is an environment Chef Elise, who is the kind of person who will always swim, thrives in. "The menu is 100% mine and as long as I'm successful I can just keep doing what I want to do."
Certainly Panzano has been successful with Wiggins at the helm. Both Chef Elise and Panzano have received high praise from the media. Dinners have weighed in with their dollars. Panzano's income has more then doubled from 3.2 million annually to 8.4 million since Elise became the Executive Chef ten years ago. "Most restaurants increase their revenue, they hope to, by 5% [annually] and I crush that. I crush it every year." Chef Elise attributes this growth to the fact that she throws all she has into the restaurant.
To achieve that type of success it’s apparent Elise doesn't have a lot of time for much more then work. The last couple months in particular have been especially hectic. Chef Elise is part of the "Denver Five" a group of top chefs, picked each year, chosen to represent the city and it's cuisine on the national level. Chef Elise is also getting ready to open up another restaurant. As one might imagine Elsie doesn't have a lot of time to relax. When she does occasionally get some time to herself she loves to hike, fly fish, and she also does some wood work. She is working on a black walnut, modern desk right now, though admittedly only in a few spare moments.
However, busy is ok, when being a professional chef has always been your dream. "I always say that I came out of my mother's womb cooking; I can't remember a time that I didn't love cooking. My first memory is when I was a child, and she’s [Elise’s mother] holding me, putting my hand in this green bowl, and it was cookie dough. I remember her making the cookies and then giving me and the rest of the family one; and we all took a bite, and I just remember seeing everybody's face. I remember I enjoyed it, I saw their faces, everybody was enjoying it; and it clicked with me right then and there. Ah-ha, you make good food then you make a lot of people happy. So I was like, that's what I want to do. I want to make a lot of people happy and make myself happy at the same time; and I've been pursuing that ever since.”
At three Elise stopped watching Sesame Street preferring instead to spend her T.V. time observing Julia Childs; and was already spending as much time in the kitchen as possible. Yet, the way to becoming a professional chef followed a meandering road for Elise. Though she wanted to attend culinary school her parents, certainly affected by the ideals of the Women's Lib movement, wanted to see Elise go to college, get a degree, have a career. Not cook. They insisted on this path telling Elise, "Once you finish college, and you still want to go to culinary school, you can pay for it, you can go; and that's exactly what I did."
In college Elise tried on a lot of different hats, but graduated with a degree in philosophy, anthropology, and psychology. She laughingly told The Daily Meal, "It was actually the easiest degree I could get at Northeast. I went for seven years and I was a pre-major of so many different things, I didn't know what I wanted to do. I thought, ok maybe this is interesting, and I'd try it for a little bit and, nope. I'd switch my major every six moths or so."
Unlike many who would have given up on becoming a chef and just followed the easier path Elise did continue to pursue the restaurant world. Elise calls herself stubborn, but perhaps tenacious a better word, "When I really have my heart set on something I just do it.”
Throughout college and after Elise was always working in a restaurant. She learned a lot and, "Kind of got smacked around in a kitchen which was great. I loved every minute of it." She hit a certain point however, where she was advised to head back to school and get her culinary degree because it would really help her achieve her goals. She attended the culinary school at The Art Institute of Colorado and flew through her program.
It's fortunate that Elise had the perseverance to stick it out because she was clearly meant to be a chef. The work she's done at the several restaurants after culinary school has always been high caliber. Palio at The Westin Rio Mar Resort, Capriccio at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, and of course Panzano here in Denver have been well reviewed under her tenure. Certainly the food she's serving today at Panzano, is creative and delicious. Chef Elise hits a standard that not many people meet. Despite their earlier misgivings, Elise's parents are now very happy as well, "What child knows at birth what she wants to do?"