All Rise For The Food Innovators

All rise to pay homage to three of Colorado’s most exciting and innovative food companies: Izzio Artisan Bakery, Noosa Yoghurt, and The Spice Guy


Photo by Paul Miller

The Spice of Life
A Boutique spicery in Aurora gives new life to one of the world’s oldest trades

We humans will do some crazy things in defense of flavor. The so-called chemical senses—taste and smell—are the most deeply rooted in our consciousness, evolutionarily speaking, and the evidence of their importance in our lives is written into history: specifically, into the history of the global spice trade.

“It amounts to about 12,000 years of conquest,” says Zach Johnston, founder and CEO of The Spice Guy, an Aurora-based supplier of spice blends that distributes its products to more than 400 restaurants and thousands of home consumers in Colorado and beyond. “People have fought wars over spices, literally killed for them. Spices originated the idea of a global commodity. They have been used as currency. As religious artifacts. Everyone knows about the ‘oldest profession.’ Well, spice trading is the second oldest.”

A Colorado native and self-described “lifelong line cook,” Johnston has built a career around what he calls the “ghost on the plate,” spices of diverse and curious origins. He spent his early years working at restaurants in Dillon, inventing blends for his employers’ kitchens and offering them for free. “It’s what I was good at,” he says. “So I showed it off.” Like a struggling actor, he talks about those beginning days in terms of “callbacks.” Whenever Johnston left a restaurant, the chef using his spices would find his number and get in touch. They always wanted more. “Eventually the phone wouldn’t stop ringing,” he says. “I was basically forced to make it my full-time job.”

Johnston had $54 to his name when he founded The Spice Guy; a business li- cense in Colorado, at that time, cost $50 before taxes. In the beginning, Johnston did all he could to keep overhead low—he helmed the operation from his bedroom—and focused on familiar, low-risk products that would sell dependably. His first homerun was a garlic mix that got the attention of a few notable chefs in Denver.

“Everybody loves garlic,” he explains. “It was a safe bet. It’s very well-rounded and works in essentially every kind of cuisine. Whether it’s fish, red meat, chicken, vegetables—it can run the gamut.”

These days, with more name recognition and a deeper presence in the Colorado food scene, Johnston has expanded into fresher, gutsier, much funkier territory. “We’ve branched into the wildest of the wild spices,” he says. “The most exotic things you can find on Earth—that’s where we’ve made our niche.” The Spice Guy now offers everything from powdered bacon to the Midnight Toker blend, made with Syrian chiles, to the Buffalo Bill’s Black Gold mix, which includes activated coconut charcoal powder.

Hashing out his plan for the future of the company, Johnston says, “We live in a town that’s ripping with development and in desperate need of some kind of help in the kitchen. I think our viability depends on the fact that many people in the restaurant industry are looking for relationships with distributors they trust. Our clients need to know we’ll bring them the best possible products every single week.”

To build that trust, Johnston spends much of his time traveling, hunting down the finest spices on the planet, grown by farmers he respects. His efforts have brought him to Mexico for chiles, France for thyme and Espelette pepper, Vietnam and India for peppercorns. “I always get to know my suppliers,” he says. “We hang out, we break bread. Those relationships are important.” The result is a sense of mutual passion and a devotion to quality that works its way down the supply chain to consumers.

This month, The Spice Guy is opening its first consumer-facing, brick-and-mortar location in Aurora. In addition to ground-to-order spices, the store will offer an intimate look at the blending process—an opportunity, Johnston hopes, to give this ancient craft the public attention it deserves.

“Until they see it, most people won’t know how cool it is to watch our guys blending,” says Johnston. “The only solution is to come and witness it for yourself. Spice trading began in the late Stone Age, and here we are in 2018, carrying on that tradition. It’s 12 millennia of history unfolding before your eyes. If that’s not interesting, I don’t know what is.”

To start filling out your spice cabinet, Johnston recommends starting with the best-selling Roasted Garlic Blend, then adding the versatile Summit County Steak & Veg and the bright, vibrant Mango Chipotle Rub (especially suitable for summer grilling).

3568 N. Peoria St. #605, Aurora

Photo by Paul Miller

Photo by Paul Miller

Yo, Noosa!
Thanks to its yoghurt’s creamy texture and spot-on flavors, this Bellvue company is taking the world by storm

West of Fort Collins, near Lory State Park, there’s a manufacturing plant. A big one. But unless you know to look for it, you might drive right by the place. That’s because the Bellvue property has that get-away-and-relax kind of stillness, with gorgeous views and a workforce that is partly of the four-legged kind.

The product it makes, Noosa yoghurt, got its start in 2010, with early meetings held on tiny milk crates at a 135-year-old dairy and big ambitions to make the best yoghurt on the planet. “At the start, we weren’t thinking this would become this significant place,” says co-owner Koel Thomae. “It was crazy.”

All Thomae knew at the beginning was that she had to have more of the yoghurt (that’s the Australian spelling) that she’d tasted while visiting her family Down Under. “My now-husband and I were walk- ing back from a beach in Queensland and stopped in a corner shop,” Thomae recalls. “I spotted this clear container with no branding and a pop of passion fruit purée. I had my first taste, and it was one of those stop-you-in-your-tracks moments, like eating your first Palisade peach. For the next two years, I obsessed over that taste.” The yoghurt, made by a small family- owned company, was smooth, and that passion fruit flavor was powerful. “It was literally the best thing I had ever eaten,” she recalls.

Thomae, then working for Izze Beverage, called the Australian family and asked if they would consider selling their yoghurt internationally. No thanks, they said politely. So Thomae spent the next two years getting what she calls a “yoghurt PhD,” then tried again: “I had a long lunch with the family at the local surf club with several beers, as you do in Australia, and walked out with a very loose license to the recipe.” She also walked out with an idea for her brand’s name: “Noosa, this really cool beach on the Sunshine Coast in southeast Queensland, is the home of the recipe,” she says.

All she needed now was a dairy expert, someone who could ensure that the milk she sourced was top-notch. “I spotted a flyer for Morning Fresh Dairy, a family-owned dairy that’s been in Bellvue since 1894, in a local coffee shop,” recalls Thomae. It was run by fourth-generation farmer Rob Graves (pictured above with Thomae), who needed only “one of those taste moments, too,” from a sample Thomae’s mom shipped stateside, to become a Noosa co-owner.

What exactly makes the yoghurt taste, as Thomae describes it, “like velvet”—and where does that four-legged staff come in? It’s all about location. Noosa made its home on Morning Fresh Dairy’s property, which means the milk from Graves’ Morning Fresh cows travels just a few feet. The rest is from farms less than 40 miles down the road.

Today, Noosa uses close to 180,000 pounds of whole milk a day to make its yogurt. It offers more than 30 flavors, the ideas for which come from Thomae’s travels and staff experiments. Classic blueberry, with more than 70 wild berries in every tub, is the top-selling flavor. And Noosa has production down to a science, thanks to Graves’ manufacturing toys—including packing robots that have been dubbed Fred, Ethel, Lucy and Ricky. “I get to build a lot of neat stuff,” says Graves, the brain behind the facility.

It’s easy to get into a routine, too, when you have great ingredients. Noosa is also made with cane sugar, honey from Elizabeth-based Beeyond the Hive, real fruit purées and, of course, creamy whole milk. The key to happy cows and great milk, says Graves, is consistency. The more a cow maintains a routine and the less stress it’s under, the richer the milk gets. Graves’ herd of 900 cows (mostly Holstein) gets milked three times a day and feasts on farm-grown hay, silage (grass and other greens) and corn.

The latest treat that passed Noosa’s 36 quality tests, including a taste-test from Graves, whose taste buds have the final word on every yoghurt: a two-in-one container where you can mix and match two different Noosa flavors to make combinations like blueberry-and-lemon, caramel apple and strawberry-and-banana.

“There have been so many highs and amazing challenges along the way,” Thomae says. “We’ve been able to hold on to the uniqueness of the flavor and texture of Noosa, and that’s no easy feat.”

Noosa’s Palisade Peach Yoghurt, available only in Colorado, is on shelves through September.

4120 N. Co. Rd. 25E, Bellvue


Photo by Paul Miller

No Matter How You Slice It
The secret to the breads at Izzio Artisan Bakery? Simple ingredients, a genius head baker—and patience

The employees at Izzio Artisan Bakery come from 16 different countries, but they all speak the same language: bread. It’s a language, says co-owner Etai Baron, that’s been spoken since ancient times. “Bread is as old as humanity,” he says. “It’s part of all the major religions—you eat bread, you bless it. The recipe for bread is thousands of years old.”

Izzio’s own history doesn’t go quite as far back as the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. It all started in 1994, when Etai’s father, Udi Baron, launched his own sandwich company, Udi the Sandwich Man. Four years later, needing a “really good artisan bread” for those sandwiches, he launched his own bakery. Etai (pictured above) joined the business in 2000, and third-generation Italian bread maker Maurizio Negrini was hired as head baker a year later (the bakery even bears his nickname: Izzio).

What makes Izzio’s bread different? “An artisan bread is made in the traditional way, with just flour, water and salt,” says Etai Baron. “You leaven it using natural fermentation. It’s a bread that has more flavor, is chewier and has a thicker crust.” We all know what that results in: “A really good sandwich.”

“The trick is extracting the most amount of flavor from the minimal number of ingredients,” says Baron, “and we do that by using fermentation, time and temperature.”

Walk through the bakery, located in a remote stretch of Louisville and the largest in the Denver area, and you feel positively Lilliputian: The giant Italian dough mixers, customized for Izzio’s and able to make 700-pound batches, stand 15 feet high, towering over bowls the size of large tractor wheels. Flour is kept in gargantuan silos in back that look like the funnels Gulliver might have used while visiting his South Sea islands, and the million-dollar custom German ovens, a couple of them the size of one-car garages, churn out 75,000 loaves a day on thermal oil-plated racks, according to partner Sara Kafadar. Inside the huge blue plastic bins that dot the bakery floor are enormous batches of dough in various states of readiness, each one the result of slow (up to 72 hours, Kafadar says) fermentation.

Izzio’s makes about 20 types of doughs, each of which gets its distinctive flavor from two primary ingredients: one of nine natural starters Izzio’s uses to leaven the bread, plus flour, which comes primarily from 26 Colorado farms and much of which is bought fresh from Ardent Mills. There are no preservatives, additives or stabilizers in any of Izzio’s breads; loaves that are shipped around the country are par-baked and frozen immediately to preserve their flavor and texture.

The ingredients may be simple; the recipes are anything but. “It took us a few hundred iterations to come up with the perfect 100 percent German rye bread,” says Baron, “just tweaking, tweaking, tweaking—everything from the amount of water to the temperature. We kept finding a huge hole in the tops of the loaves, and it took us so long to figure out how to fix that.”

Izzio’s recipes get their inspiration from a variety of places: requests from customers, breads that have been discovered on trips, or the bakers’ imaginations. “But wherever a recipe comes from,” Baron says, “once it goes into our bakery it becomes something unique to us.”

Part of that uniqueness comes from head baker Negrini. “He has an amazing palate,” says Baron, “and an equally amazing ability and dedication to get to what he thinks is a good bread. He’s forced us to remain pure because his standards are so high.” Izzio’s has evolved with those standards over the years, for example removing shelf-life expanders and enrichments, “the kinds of things you find in breads in the commercial section of the grocery store,” Baron says. “To me, those breads are what Michael Pollan would describe as ‘food-like.’ We want to make real food.”

That, they do. As we wander toward the back of the cavernous bakery floor, we come upon large red bins filled with reject loaves—not up to Izzio standards. Baron cracks open a warm ciabatta loaf, admires the interior crevasses that are the sine qua non of this particular bread, and offers up a steaming chunk.

It’s so irresistibly delicious I don’t want to stop noshing, but then I recall the words of Kafadar when asked how everyone at Izzio’s stays slender.

“Everything in moderation,” she says.

Izzio’s artisan breads, which are sold in stores like King Sooper’s, Whole Foods and Natural Food Markets, are also available at Denver Central Market and at Etai’s Bakery Cafes.

185 S. 104th., Louisville

The Chef Who Made The Following Dishes


Photo by Paul Miller

 There’s an aha! moment when a chef taste-tests a creation and the flavors are in perfect harmony.

How to get there? Chef Lisa Givens says it’s simple: You just keep going until you get that certain flavor (or combination of flavors) that’s just right. It’s a trial-and-error sort of thing, something the New Orleans- born and -raised chef has become very familiar with since starting her own catering business, Gourmet Away, in 2005.

After working in the telecommunications industry for more than 20 years, Givens felt the culinary world calling. A mere five months later, Gourmet Away was up and running. She was recently named Chef of the Year by the United States Personal Chef Association.

Givens’ story is the classic tale of a kid growing up watching her parents cook and falling in love with the craft herself. As a child, she was surrounded by meals made up of equal parts fierce flavor and savory spunk that matured her palate and taught her what it takes to make food that’s can’t-put-your-fork-down good.

But her catering business is about more than just flavor; it’s also about reliability, timeliness, communication and compassion. She considers her clients to be part of her family, and she wants to create the best possible experience for them through the food they eat every day. “There’s a spirit of excellence in everything I do,” she says. “I hate for people not to be accommodated.”

Givens likes to first meet with her clients to get a sense of who they are, what flavors and food they like and dislike, and what, if any, dietary restrictions they have. Then she constructs a personalized menu that caters to their wants and needs, verifies it with them and starts cooking.

Being a personal chef, she says, is all about patience and constant tailoring. When cooking for a family, she factors in who is gluten free and who’s not, and when cooking for the elderly, she usually goes easy on the salt.

How does she maintain flavor and taste in spite of these restrictions? Givens says it’s not too difficult given her belief that food in its most natural form tastes the best (with an assortment of herbs, spices and lemon juice added in to jazz things up). —Hayden Gamble

Chipotle Salmon Mango Tacos
A tangy mixture from The Spice Guy adds zip to this dish.


Photo by Paul Miller

Makes 4 servings

1 plum tomato, chopped or diced
1 ⁄ 2 avocado, peeled, seeded and medium diced
1 ⁄ 4 cup red onion, finely chopped
1 Serrano chile, seeded and finely chopped
1 chopped mango
1 ⁄ 4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 ⁄ 2 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons lime juice
1 tablespoon Mango Chipotle Rub from The Spice Guy
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 salmon fillets, about 4 to 6 ounces each
8 tortillas, corn or flour

1 cup finely shredded red cabbage
Lime wedges

TO MAKE SALSA, combine all ingredients and season to taste. Set aside.
TO MAKE TACOS, warm tortillas on both sides. If using corn, warm in a single layer in a skillet on medium heat. If using uncooked flour tortillas, heat on medium heat for 20 seconds per side. Sprinkle salmon with oil and lime juice and season with mango-chipotle seasoning. If possible, let sit in the fridge for an hour or two. Cook salmon in a skillet on medium heat and, once brown on one side, flip and cook until internal temperature reads 145° F. Flake or slice salmon into pieces. Place salmon in taco shell, add salsa and top with red cabbage and lime juice.

Blue Cheese BLT Stack
Toasted Izzio Artisan Bakery bread elevates this sandwich.


Photo by Paul Miller

Makes 2 servings • Adapted from 

1 ⁄ 2 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon lemon zest
Pinch of salt
Pinch of black pepper
1 ⁄ 4 cup blue cheese crumbles

8 slices bacon, cooked (Givens likes to bake it in the oven)
4 slices Izzio Artisan Bakery white batard or sourdough bread, sliced (or use Texas toast)
4 large lettuce leaves
1 large tomato, sliced

TO MAKE THE SPREAD, whisk together mayonnaise, lemon juice, lemon zest and salt and pep- per in a small bowl. Stir in blue cheese crumbles, pressing with a fork to break down any larger pieces. Blend for a smooth spread if desired.
TO MAKE THE SANDWICH, toast slices of bread until they are golden brown (Givens likes to brown the bread in a buttered skillet). Add spread to one side of one piece of bread and top with bacon, lettuce and tomato. Add spread to one side of another slice and place it, spread side down, on top of the tomato to make a sandwich. Using the same process, make another sandwich. Stack two sandwiches, secure with a tooth- pick and slice in half on the diagonal. Serve immediately.

Lime Cilantro Summer Shrimp Salad 
The dressing makes all the difference.


Photo by Paul Miller

Makes 2 to 4 servings • Adapted from

1 ⁄ 2 cup Key Lime Noosa Yoghurt
1 tablespoon fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
2 cloves garlic
Juice of 1 lime
Pinch of salt
1 ⁄ 8 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

3 cup mixed greens, chopped
1 cup cherry tomatoes, cut in half
1 ⁄ 2 cup corn, taken off the cob
1 ⁄ 2 cup cucumber, sliced or seeded and diced
1 ⁄ 2 avocado, halved, seeded and peeled
1 ⁄ 8 cup tortilla strips for garnish

1 ⁄ 2 pound jumbo raw shrimp
3 ⁄ 4 tablespoon Old Bay or other favorite seasoning
1 tablespoon avocado oil (or other high heat oil)

TO MAKE THE DRESSING, combine yoghurt, cilantro, garlic, lime juice and salt in a blender. With blender running, add olive oil and vinegar in a slow stream until emulsified. Set aside.
TO ASSEMBLE THE SALAD, place greens in a large bowl and top with tomatoes, corn and cucumber and gently toss to combine. Add avocado and set aside.
TO COOK THE SHRIMP, peel and devein, if necessary, but keep the tail. Season shrimp and place a tablespoon of avocado oil in a skillet on medium to medium-high heat. Cook shrimp, place on top of salad, and add dressing. Garnish with tortilla strips.

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