Denver restaurateurs prep for DNC onslaught

Chef Jennifer Jasinski is a bit uneasy, but not about the special hors d’oeuvres she had to think up for the throngs of people who will pass through her Denver restaurant, Rioja, during the Democratic National Convention.

Instead, she’s worrying about these finger foods’ ingredients arriving at her downtown restaurant in the first place.

Jasinski is one of several high-profile restaurateurs in Denver drawing up elaborate plans, stocking their shelves with extra food and preparing to keep their dining rooms open late during this convention week. The convention could bring them surprise guests, frustrating no-shows, last-minute changes and valuable exposure.

Jasinski spent several years working under chef-to-the-celebrities Wolfgang Puck, cooking for Al Gore at the late oil billionaire Marvin Davis’s Los Angeles house and for Sean Connery while he was dressed in a kilt and playing the bagpipes. So serving the country’s biggest political names isn’t a worry.

What is a concern is the possibility that nearby street closings could prevent staff getting to work, or groceries being delivered.

“We have to be ready for anything ... [like] any delivery that comes completely late,” said Jasinski, whose restaurant is bought out at lunchtime every convention day. She also has two 200-person receptions scheduled and plans to extend her opening hours for late-night diners.

Another challenge is preparing food that can be eaten without a fork, which is a quirk of the new congressional ethics rules that restaurateurs outside Washington must learn.

“I was like, ‘What’s wrong with a fork?’ ” she said when she heard that the food she makes for her receptions cannot require the use of the pronged utensil.

Luckily, Jasinski is creative.

She’ll be serving bite-sized foods such as tuna tartare on an apple chip and homemade dill-and-horseradish salmon on house-baked flatbread.

“Nobody knows what to expect,” said Jamey Fader, the chef and owner of the upscale Mexican restaurant Lola, on the other side of downtown.
Fader was born in Washington and knows “the politicos are used to this hubbub.” His plan is to do what the restaurant always does but be ready to accommodate larger numbers of guests and those who may have special security needs.

On Monday night, Lola will have its weekly special of $3 tacos — including chipotle-braised chicken tacos and mahi mahi tacos — and $1.50 beers. Fader’s restaurant also specializes in tequila and holds several tastings of the Mexican liquor throughout the week.

Frank Bonanno, a Denver chef who trained at New York’s esteemed Culinary Institute of America, said he’s worried that business might not be as good as predicted during convention week. Local residents who are regulars will probably avoid downtown Denver, he said, and he’s not sure whether the political crowd will make up for that loss.

“I just don’t know that it’s going to be the financial windfall [people] think it’s going to be,” he said during a break from making agnolotti filled with Dungeness crab in the kitchen of his central Denver restaurant, Mizuna. He also has a downtown restaurant, Osteria Marco, that will be the setting for a couple of 200-person parties.

Nevertheless, Bonanno is focused on making great food with “almost 100 percent all-local” ingredients so that he can display Colorado cooking at its finest.

“We’re just doing what we usually do, just trying to be the best and trying to put out great food every night,” he said.