The chefs are tired.
“Happy kitchen?” Fernando Stovell, director of the Hispanic Restaurant Association, asks from the front of a classroom at the Colorado State University Spur campus.
“Yes, chef!” a room full of CEOs, food distributors, insurance agents, tax analysts, small business owners, restaurateurs and chefs calls out. Stovell is wrapping up an hourlong presentation about the association’s accomplishments and ambitions. He has peppered his talk with this call and response.
But this time, after snapping everyone to attention, he holds a finger to his mouth, signaling quiet. He fixes his gaze on seven stand-out chefs sitting in the front row. “Happy kitchen?” he repeats. A weary, collective whisper escapes the front row: “Yes, chef.”
It’s day one of Hispanic Top Chef, a three-day cooking competition where seven chefs selected from around the U.S. and Mexico will test their knowledge, leadership and talent in the kitchen.
The competition is hosted by the Hispanic Restaurant Association, a nonprofit founded in Denver in 2021 by John Jaramillo and Selene Nestor. The organization’s refrain is repeated in conversations and presentations throughout the weekend: “to educate and elevate” the Hispanic food community.
In three years, the HRA has wrangled together not just hundreds of Hispanic restaurateurs and chefs to share their platform, but insurance brokers, commercial real estate agents, meat and dry bean suppliers, cutlery companies and a whole cadre of other consultants, ready and willing to energize the Hispanic food community. This is the HRA’s third iteration of Hispanic Top Chef, which they hold annually in Denver to bring their network together and celebrate up-and-coming chefs.
The competition is scored out of 100 points. The chefs have five opportunities over three days to earn points. Fifty of those points come from the cooking competition judged by a panel of seven renowned Hispanic chefs and restaurateurs, including Stovell and Michael Diaz De Leon, whose Denver restaurant, Brutø, just earned one of Colorado’s five Michelin stars. Twenty points are awarded during a trivia match where the chefs test their cultural and culinary knowledge. Another 20 points are based on the chefs’ ability to design a menu (in 30 minutes) and then delegate the shopping and preparation responsibilities to their sous-chefs. Five points are awarded for sending Stovell a recipe for the HRA newsletter, and the final five come from complying with health and safety practices throughout the competition.
After those three days, Peruvian-born and Denver-based chef Carolina Zubiate was awarded Hispanic Top Chef 2023, an honor that comes with a trip for two to Mexico City and a food tour led by Stovell. Zubiate cooks for private dinners and events and works as a chef at Yuan Wonton, a beloved dumpling truck run by chef Penelope Wong that recently opened its first brick-and-mortar restaurant.
It starts with one
There are over 62 million Hispanic or Latino residents in the United States, comprising about one-fifth of the population, according to the 2020 census. (The U.S. Census Bureau later estimated it had undercounted the population by nearly 5%.) In Colorado, Hispanic and Latino people make up about 21% of residents, a share that has increased by more than 200,000 people since 2010. According to the National Restaurant Association, Hispanic chefs make up about one-quarter of all chefs in the nation and Hispanic cooks make up about 35% of the U.S. restaurant workforce. Stovell, however, thinks these numbers are vastly undercounted.
“I was shocked. Shocked,” Stovell said of learning that an organization like the Hispanic Restaurant Association didn’t exist already.
“We were surprised,” said Chef Betty Vázquez, an award-winning chef, Master Chef Mexico judge and one of this year’s Hispanic Top Chef judges. “How could nobody (have) thought about getting organized in a strong association? I mean, working together you have better ideas, working together you are stronger. Working together you bring the best of everyone.”
Ivy Perez-Casillas, owner of Los Molinos in Denver, was the HRA’s first member. “What made me get involved was the fact that I saw that there was somebody who I could relate to, somebody who was Hispanic,” she said. “We’ve been in other (restaurant) organizations for maybe a decade, and we had never really seen what the organization itself does. So I was intrigued to see like, OK, how can this organization help me?”
She paid the HRA $45, received an introduction email and then didn’t hear much. Two months later, Jaramillo showed up at Los Molinos to tell Perez-Casillas about a grant that she could apply for.
“I was like, he came all the way to the restaurant? He could have just given me a call.”
The grant application was due the next day. Jaramillo had been trying to reach Perez-Casillas, but she was busy with her catering service. “He was like, ‘We literally have 24 hours to submit this,’” Perez-Casillas said. “We worked together, he showed me everything that I needed to submit.”
Three months later, Perez-Casillas got an email from DoorDash and the Accion Opportunity Fund that Los Molinos was one of 20 restaurants to receive a $20,000 grant. Jaramillo and the HRA team came to Los Molinos to celebrate.
From that point on, Los Molinos and the HRA have worked closely on a number of projects. For instance, the HRA reviewed the point-of-sale service at Los Molinos and figured out that they were being overcharged, then helped them switch systems. “Just little things like that,” Perez-Casillas said. “As a small business owner, you know, you don’t always look at things like that where you can save and cut corners and they helped me in doing that.”
Day one: Trivia
During the trivia competition on day one, Zubiate secured 15 of 20 points in the trivia match, edging ahead of her competitors with correct answer to questions like:
What aromatic herb commonly used in Latin American has a flavor profile similar to licorice or anise? (Cilantro)
What wine is often paired with red meat such as steak or lamb? (Cabernet Sauvignon)
What is the name of the fusion cuisine that combines elements of Japanese and Peruvian tradition? (Nikkei)
“HRA is not just looking for good cooks or good chefs, we’re looking for leaders, we’re looking for chefs who can actually develop, teach and educate the rest,” Stovell said.
Stovell’s emphasis on continual learning is unavoidable throughout the competition. His most commonly used phrase is, probably, “write it down.”
“Have you ever used a rotovap?” Stovell asks the chefs during a presentation about menu design, using the shorthand for a rotary evaporator. No one responds.
“Write it down. R-O-T-O-V-A-P.”
A few minutes later, Stovell is describing the sugar substitute on top of one of his desserts. “Have you used isomalt before? Write it down.”
And then, “Who has heard of the restaurant Frantzén? Write it down.
“Have you seen the movie ‘Como Agua Para Chocolate?’ Write it down.
“Do you know what ‘puchero’ is?” he asks, of a hearty Spanish stew. “Write it down.
“Who knows what a French trim is?” he asks, pointing at a delicately cleaned rib cage of a rabbit projected on a screen, one of Stovell’s prized dishes. Dissatisfied by the chefs’ blank faces, he points at them one by one asking “Do you?” and elicits a crisp response from each: “Yes, chef.”
Stovell makes his way down the row until one of the chefs shakes his head, no.
“Write it down.”
Day two: Mise en place
Mise en place is the culinary term for preparation. It’s the stage of gathering, washing, slicing, grating, peeling, dicing. During day two of Top Chef, the chefs are given 30 minutes to design a menu based on a list of available ingredients and then send their sous chef to the kitchen to “shop” and prepare as much as possible in two hours. The sous chefs are told to leave their phones locked in a classroom, so they can’t deliberate with their chefs. It’s an exercise in delegation and communication. The sous chefs have to understand more than just a grocery list, they have to understand the way their chefs want to emphasize and highlight different ingredients, what to do if something isn’t available, how they want their cooking station prepared.
“As a chef, it’s really easy for me to cook. For Chef Betty, it’s really easy to cook. For Chef Pablo, it’s really easy to cook,” Stovell said, pointing at the other Top Chef judges in the room. “But what is hard is to really source the right ingredients.”
The HRA has partnered with the Colorado Dry Beans Committee, Where Food Comes From and the Colorado Beef Council, among others, to not only support the Association’s mission financially, but to create more opportunities that link the growers and distributors to the chefs.
“I grew up on a farm and have been in the ag industry for my whole career,” said Greg Bloom, CEO of Barber’s Farms and member of the Colorado Dry Beans Committee. “It’s no secret that the person producing the food is never gonna get to talk directly to the person using the food, unless that chef is shopping for local produce at a farmer’s market. But they don’t have time to do that.”
Bloom worked with the Dry Beans Committee and the HRA to create the Bean Summit in December 2022, which brought growers, nutritionists and chefs together for panel talks, networking and, of course, good food.
Jaramillo calls all of these connections “strategic touch points,” while Stovell calls them “the spiderweb.” Whatever name it goes by, it’s comprehensive, and it’s growing. Over the course of Hispanic Top Chef, the competitors sat through short presentations by beef cattle farmers offering to show the chefs how to butcher a cow in the back of their restaurant; they are pitched a group purchasing platform that will help small restaurants cut supply costs; they’re shown a slideshow from Washington, D.C., where communications specialist Shelleen Smith worked with Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper to pass a resolution for a national Hispanic Restaurant Week, which dedicates a week each fall to recognizing the vast contributions of Hispanic communities to the restaurant industry.
Of all the things that light Stovell up throughout the weekend, though, the thing that he appears most passionate about is the creation of Quetzales Guide, a Hispanic culinary guide and awards system, in the vein of Michelin and James Beard, but without any pretensions.
LEFT: Graham Lloyd selects spices to use before the Hispanic Top Chef competition. RIGHT: Courtney Bowen adds achiote powder to other ingredients. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
ABOVE: Graham Lloyd selects spices to use before the Hispanic Top Chef competition. BELOW: Courtney Bowen adds achiote powder to other ingredients. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
“I want street food, food trucks, casual dining, fine dining,” Stovell said. “We don’t care. Just as long as it’s well presented, it’s great food and it celebrates the Hispanic community.” So far, the HRA has collected 100 anonymous inspectors and created a judging rubric. Their goal is to have 1,600 entries into the Quetzales guide by this time next year.
“The Hispanic community has stayed very silent, and that’s really sad. There are so many talents out there,” Stovell said. “When I was out in California, in a pretty rough neighborhood, I had the best carnitas in my life from a guy on the street. Truck drivers would drive two hours out of their way for these carnitas. Why not spread the word? This guy should have at the doorstep of his house a little stamp that says ‘Quetzales, Hispanic, proud.’”
Day three: cooking competition
On Saturday, Oct. 14, the chefs have three hours in the kitchen to execute four courses: an amuse bouche, an appetizer, a main dish and a dessert.
Before the chefs take to their stations, Chef Stovell uncovers two meat-filled baskets. One holds a selection of floppy, red beef cuts, the other has offal — the internal organs of the cow, like liver, intestines and heart. The chefs have to incorporate one ingredient from each basket into their meals.
Start times are staggered by 10 minutes. Beginning at 5 p.m. and continuing into the evening, the seven judges are served an array of ceviches, milpas, pollos a la brasa, cachapas, tostadas and flans. In Zubiate’s winning lineup, the judges dine on beef heart skewers in anticucho sauce; salmon tiradito, a Peruvian dish of raw fish cut in the shape of sashimi, served with aji amarillo; beef lomo saltado with rice; and a tres leches cake.
The whole evening is a skillful mixture of home cooking and fine dining. Dishes that look like tiny contemporary artworks are named after chefs’ grandparents, sauce recipes handed down through generations drench meats cooked using French culinary techniques.
“As chefs we tend to ‘chef it up’ a lot, right?” said Top Chef judge Erasmo Casiano, owner of Create Kitchen & Bar in Stanley Marketplace. “But you know, it’s about our roots. Our time is now, somos capaz de más. You know what that means? We’re capable of more. You have a taco truck? Fantastic. Know that you’re capable of opening a brick-and-mortar. Know that you’re capable of running multiple restaurants. Somos capaz de más.”