Even in the midst of a global pandemic that has decimated the national hospitality industry, there are new culinary career opportunities to be found—just not always in Colorado. Secret Sauce restaurant group’s pastry chef Nadine Donovan and Jacaranda chef-owner Modou Jaiteh are both heeding the call of other climes, moving to North Carolina and South Carolina, respectively, in the coming weeks and months. Their professional and personal gain is the Front Range dining scene’s loss.
You may know Nadine’s work from the beautiful sweet plates she’s created for Secret Sauce’s Steuben’s, Ace Eat Serve, and pandemic-casualty Vesta for the past six years. In fact, Donovan comes from a long line of pastry chefs, from her bakery-owner grandfather to her tea-shop pastry chef mother.
Donovan began her professional culinary journey with her first real job: espresso maker and gelato scooper at Parisi Italian Market & Deli, when she was just 14 years old. That’s where she met chef Bob Blair, who taught her about Italian cheeses and pastries, encouraging Donovan to begin spreading her sugary wings by making the likes of ricotta cakes with homemade marmalade. “I had a lot of ambition, but not a lot of knowledge,” Donovan jokes.
After graduating from culinary school at Johnson & Wales, she studied nutrition for a year at the University of Hawaii, but reconnecting with Blair during a summer home from school made Donovan reconsider that path. She moved back to Denver and helped Blair open Fuel Cafe in RiNo in 2007. “I feel like that restaurant was a part of the progression of the Denver culinary scene,” Donovan says. “And I got to do a bit of everything there, from serving to baking bread.”
A job at a Portland, Oregon bakery called Donovan away a few years later, but a fortuitous visit from chef Justin Brunson as he was planning Old Major (also now closed) inspired Donovan to return to the Centennial State yet again to help him open his meat-centric spot in Highland in 2013.
In 2015, Donovan made her final (for now) local move to work for restaurateur Josh Wolkon at Secret Sauce’s three concepts. There, she’s created desserts that became iconic: upscale Dippin’ Dots and other plated delights for fine-dining Vesta; from-scratch fortune cookies and five-spice-sugared bao with lime crème anglaise at Ace; and diner classics like butterscotch pudding and Truck Stop Chocolate Cake at Steuben’s. The breadth and scope of Donovan’s talents have consistently impressed diners and media alike, but the good she did for her community made an even deeper impression.
Most recently, Donovan has been working with the Secret Sauce team to send hot meals to Urban Peak every week, baking hundreds of cookies for Denver’s chapter of Cookies for Caregivers, and preparing meals for frontline workers. She won the Inventing Room Dessert Shop’s first inaugural charity pie contest earlier this month, the proceeds from which benefited Project Angel Heart, a local organization that prepares and delivers medically tailored meals to Coloradans with life-threatening illnesses. Outside of Secret Sauce, Donovan donated a lot of time making sweet treats for and participating in fundraising events, from Work Options for Women’s annual gala to her “all-time favorite” Harvest Week, the collaborative autumn dinner series which benefits EatDenver and the GrowHaus. “It’s hard to imagine any other community being as collaborative as here,” she says.
And yet, come May, Donovan is moving to Asheville, North Carolina. Her partner, a brewer by trade, is looking at job opportunities there and Donovan is excited for an open-ended adventure filled with farmers’ markets—and possibly even buying their own farm—as she figures out her next steps. Will North Carolina be her forever home? If history is any indicator, it’s safe to say that there’s at least a chance that she’ll be back. In the meantime, keep an eye out for the announcement of a final dessert-centric event this spring celebrating Donovan’s tenure with Secret Sauce.
Chef Modou Jaiteh, formerly of the Stone Cup in Lyons and owner of Jacaranda, formerly at Boulder’s Rosetta Hall, grew up in the Gambia in western Africa, where his mother, a talented and inspiring cook, still lives. In fact, his mother’s cooking played a direct role in the circumstances that led to his imminent departure to Buffort, South Carolina. “I’ve always been drawn to the low country [of South Carolina], as it’s a place that’s intimately connected to where I’m from in West Africa, and similar in a lot of ways,” Jaiteh says. “The Gullah Geechee people are very connected to West Africa, and have kept their traditions and language, which I can understand because it’s similar to Aku, my mother’s language. I’ve always wanted to go there and be a part of that community.” Very soon, Jaiteh will fulfill that dream, moving to the Bluffton area to work with chef Benjamin “B.J.” Dennis to open Lowcountry Fresh Market & Cafe.
Jaiteh and Dennis connected last year through social media when Jaiteh saw that Dennis was planning a trip to the Gambia and the surrounding nation of Senegal. Jaiteh reached out, suggesting that Dennis visit his mother there. “I knew that they would at least connect via the food,” Jaiteh says. Dennis took Jaiteh up on the idea, visiting his mother, Boumie Campbell, and sharing a meal of benachin (a rice and meat dish which Jaiteh credits as the Senegambian forebear to jollof rice), okra stew with seafood, and peanut rice pudding. The experience clearly made an impact on Dennis, because when he returned to the States, he told Jaiteh about his plans for Lowcountry, inviting Jaiteh to join him in the endeavor. “I told him that was nice, but I wasn’t ready to leave Colorado just yet. That was in February 2020. About eight months later, [Dennis] shared more with me and I just couldn’t say no.”
Jaiteh will serve as head chef at Lowcountry when it opens in May. He’s most excited about how the market-restaurant will work with and support the Gullah Farmers Cooperative, an association of 17 Gullah Geechee family-run farms on St. Helena Island. “The owners of Lowcountry are helping build a processing facility for the coop, in addition to the market and cafe, so community members can have access to locally grown food and the farmers can produce even more, with an outlet for selling what they grow. It’s not just about a restaurant, it’s about the impact this project could have on the community.” Jaiteh plans to keep his produce sourcing to within 250 miles of Lowcountry and work with culinary director Dennis in drawing on the cultures of the West African diaspora and the Gullah Geechee people in creating their menus.
Jaiteh also intends to learn all that he can about the grocery business, from logistics to supply chain to display, and eventually, bring that knowledge back to Colorado. “I have no intention of losing what I’ve built here. It may take a couple of years, but I want to come back with some funding behind us and continue to do more good work in Colorado,” he says. Once Lowcountry is open and running smoothly, Jaiteh hopes to also hold Jacaranda pop ups across the country, from his former home in New Orleans to his recent home in Boulder.
The final local Jacaranda pop-up for 2021 starts tonight, running from January 27 to 31, at Arcana in Boulder, where Jaiteh and chef Samuel McCandless have collaborated to delicious effect several times in the past. There are still a few indoor dining reservations remaining, and the entire menu is available to go, as well. The offerings, a mix of Jacaranda’s best dishes, include jollof rice fritters with pink shrimp and golden king crab; domoda, a rich peanut butter stew made with eggplant and Buckner Family Ranch lamb shank; a marinated fried catfish stew; Jaiteh’s Ghana po’boy, filled with mushrooms, cauliflower, shito (Ghanian hot sauce), and pickled raisins; a chicken boudin sausage sandwich; a pulled pork sandwich with Haitian pikliz (pickled vegetable relish) and sweet chile mayo; and Selim pepper macarons filled with coffee buttercream.
“It feels good to do this [pop up] for the Boulder community that has supported us,” Jaiteh says. It will taste just as good to dine on Jaiteh’s cooking one last time—for now.
If you go: The Jacaranda x Arcana pop up runs from January 27 to 31, 4 to 8:30 p.m., 909 Walnut St., Boulder, 303-444-3885. Click here for the menu and to place your order or book a table.