FIVE Is Helping to Put the Colorado Food Scene on the National Map

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This year‘s FIVE expert team. Courtesy Leigh Sullivan

From James Beard awards to Food Network accolades to Denver being ranked the third hottest food city in 2016 by Zagat, Colorado’s culinary and bar scene is exploding. And though there are a lot of factors contributing to the newly found recognition, there’s one group that has worked for a decade to show what Colorado is dishing up.

Started by Leigh Sullivan in 2006, FIVE is a collaborative program that gathers five top Colorado chefs along with a beverage team each year to work together to serve a spectacular annual meal at the James Beard House (this year’s dinner takes place Oct. 6). This year’s group: chef Darrel Truett, a FIVE alumni chef and executive chef at Barolo Grill; Elan Wenzel, sushi chef at Sushi Sasa and owner of Chefs Custom Cutlery; pastry chef Samm Sherman; Mark Dym, chef and owner of Racca’s Pizzeria; and Duane Walker, chef de cuisine at Centra Mexican (Big Red F), along with cocktail expert Steven Waters and Ryan Fletter, advanced sommelier and owner of Barolo Grill.

We caught up with Sullivan on the program, her hopes for this year and her favorite restaurants.

Congratulations on your 10th year! What are you most looking forward to with this year’s group?
“My husband, Travis Plakke, and I are both really excited about this year because we feel really good about our lineup of chefs. We have a lot of really solid people in the mix that aren’t necessarily household names. For us, we always love to see what these guys and gals do after they have a year in FIVE, and what we’re most excited about is watching what this group does. We love to get to know each new set of people and watch them grow and spread their wings.”

Your website notes FIVE is a collaborative effort “between Colorado’s most influential chefs in an effect to put our state’s exceptional regional cuisine on the national culinary map.” How does the group work together to make this happen?
“I am a third-generation Coloradan and have been in the food industry my whole life. The one thing I got really, really, really tired of was hearing about all of these other great food cities. I traveled around the world extensively growing up and ate at amazing restaurants, but I always found that some of the best meals I ever had were in my own backyard. I call it my ‘Jan Brady’ story. I was so sick and tired of hearing about San Francisco, New York and the others, and nobody recognizing the amazing food scene here. So I set off with the help of my friend at the James Beard House who’s the director of house programming, Izabela Wojcik. I told her, ‘I want to bring a different chef—one for each course—to the James Beard House to highlight these guys and show off what Colorado has, because we’ve got some of the best stuff in the whole world.’ It took about two to three years for her to finally say, ‘OK, this lady is going to keep calling me unless we do this.’”

How do you pick the chefs you feature each year?
“You know, that’s a really good question. And I don’t have a really intelligent answer: I don’t have a magical answer or a ‘this is how.’ I wish I did. A lot of it is I am a bit of a weirdo about organic-ness and things popping up or just happening, so what I’ll do is watch all year long and make a secret wish list. When it comes time to start asking chefs, I go back to these lists that I’ve made about people my husband and I have a great relationship with or places where I’ve had a great meal. A lot of what makes FIVE work is that we need individuals who can leave behind their egos and their brands to come together with four other strangers and really put a lot of effort into becoming this great culinary super-group. It has a lot to do with personalities, talent—a hundred things, really.”

Can the public participate?
“Absolutely! People can attend each one of the Five at FIVE dinners. The first one for this year is on March 13 at Barolo Grill.”

Editor’s note: To prep for the big meal, chefs spend the year getting to know each other, and the skills they have to offer, at a handful of dinners—where the chefs can cook anything they would like to showcase. They also cook together as a group at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic. The result: At the end of it all, “they’re like family,” Sullivan says. “The reason we do the events is to build up meaningful relationships.”

What’s your favorite restaurant in Denver?
“That’s like asking me if I have a favorite child! We live across the street from Barolo Grill and it’s our favorite go-to spot, which makes us sound very spoiled because Barolo Grill is amazing. We’ve been there in our sweats: It’s pure luxury.”

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