Colorado’s First Michelin Restaurant Guide Serves Up Few Stars

Five restaurants in Colorado — four in Denver and one in Aspen — each won a Michelin star on Tuesday night, and no two- or three-star restaurants were anointed by the influential culinary guide in its first round of awards in the state.

The chef Kelly Whitaker, who runs a small empire in Boulder and Denver focused on Colorado’s culinary traditions and local ingredients, was the night’s big winner, with one star each for the Wolf’s Tailor and Bruto, a Bib Gourmand for Basta and a Recommended rating for Hey Kiddo. (A signature dish at the Wolf’s Tailor is called Venison and Its Diet: roast venison loin with matsutake mushrooms, huckleberries and bitter greens.)

At a ceremony in Denver, 30 restaurants joined the ranks of “Michelin recommended,” one of several categories and awards the company has recently introduced to pull more restaurants into its brand orbit. Four won “green” stars for sustainable food practices, including the Wolf’s Tailor and Bruto (Mr. Whitaker’s group has a director of fermentation) and Blackbelly Market in Boulder, led by the head butcher Kelly Kawachi, who also won the award for culinary professional of the year. (She was the only woman to win a star of her own.)

A group of Colorado state and local tourism authorities and resort companies paid Michelin a total of about $600,000 to help create the guide, so only restaurants in Boulder, Denver, Aspen, Vail, Snowmass and Beaver Creek were eligible for stars, a decision that rankled chefs in municipalities that did not pitch in money.

Frasca, in Boulder, widely considered the restaurant most likely to win two stars, for its elegant Northern Italian focus and wine list, earned one, and a special award for outstanding service.

A dessert from the restaurant Frasca in Boulder, Colo., which won a Michelin star on Tuesday.Credit…Casey Wilson

But with only five restaurants in the state deemed “worth a stop,” according to Michelin’s rating system, and none worth a detour (two stars) or a trip (three stars), celebrations were muted. Bobby Stuckey, an owner of Frasca, is one of the restaurateurs who pushed Colorado tourism officials to bring Michelin to the state. He said the overall scarcity of stars in Tuesday’s announcement — not since 1956, when Italy won no stars in its first edition, has a new region won so few — would serve as a wake-up call to restaurants in the state.

“There were definitely some broken hearts in that room,” he said, as a majority of the chefs who traveled to the ceremony realized that they would not be going home with stars.

Bosq, in Aspen, and Beckon, in Denver, also earned one star apiece. All but one of the starred restaurants serve only multicourse tasting menus, cementing the widespread belief among chefs that receiving a Michelin star may require adopting a labor-intensive style that appeals more to tourists than to locals and regulars.

Before the ceremony, Jen Jasinski, one of the first Colorado chefs to win a James Beard award and a mentor to many who did attend, was cautiously optimistic about her prospects, but all of the restaurants in her popular group (Rioja, Bistro Vendôme, Ultreia, Stoic & Genuine) were shut out.

As a lifelong user of the guide, she said, she accepted Michelin’s judgment. “It sucks to say this and it breaks my heart, but we just didn’t do it.”

She said that consistency — one of Michelin’s top priorities — is her greatest challenge, with high kitchen turnover and a scarcity of experienced service staff. Chefs and officials alike said the ability of a Michelin Guide to attract experienced sous-chefs and servers to the region amid a continuing nationwide shortage made the investment worthwhile.

Many said they were surprised that the luxurious Little Nell, in Aspen, which holds countless hospitality awards, didn’t rise to star level. The chef, Matt Zubrod, said that winning a Recommended designation for Element 47 was enough for the first year; his experiences with similar groups like the star programs of Forbes and AAA, and the global Relais & Châteaux chain, have taught him that simply being included is often enough.

“When you search for ‘Michelin restaurants Colorado,’ we pop up,” he said. “That’s the main thing.”

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