On June 10, Colorado brought home two James Beard Awards, one of the most prestigious culinary honors in the United States. Kelly and Erika Whitaker, who under their Id Est hospitality group operate the Wolf’s Tailor, Brutø, Hey Kiddo, and others, won the Outstanding Restaurateur award, and Matt Vawter, chef-owner of Rootstalk and Radicato in Breckenridge, won for Best Chef: Mountain. All three have long worked in Colorado—Erika and Matt are natives, to boot—and fueled change in the local restaurant scene: The Whitakers opened their first restaurant, Basta, in Boulder in 2010, and before Vawter struck out on his own in 2020, he helped establish renowned concepts under Alex Seidel as chef de cuisine of Mercantile Dining & Provision and Fruition.

This past Monday, 5280 sat down with Vawter and the Whitakers at the Wolf’s Tailor for an inside-the-industry interview where the chef-restaurateurs discussed everything from their emotional winning moments to the challenges of operating a restaurant in Colorado’s mountains.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

5280: Do you remember the first time you went to each other’s restaurants?

Matt: The first time I went to Basta, I was like, “Am I in the right place?” You’re literally walking next to apartments then walk into this really cool restaurant. I remember all the wood and the pizza oven in the back and I just sat down and had a great meal.

Kelly: For me, I was always the cook that would go to the chef and ask him how the restaurant worked. So that was my introduction to Matt [when he was working at Fruition], trying to find out who’s producing this. Alex has always been one to celebrate his cooks and really give them a platform.

5280: Well, I’d love to segue to your James Beard Awards, which you won last week. Congrats again. Matt, you were chef de cuisine with Alex at Mercantile when he won Best Chef: Southwest in 2018, but this is your first splash onto the James Beards on your own. Kelly and Erika, y’all have a bit more history. For Wolf’s Tailor, you were a semifinalist in 2019 for Best Chef; in 2020, you were a finalist. Then last year you two were Outstanding Restaurateur semifinalists. Now obviously you have nabbed your awards. Take me to the ceremony. What was in your head?

Kelly: I was just completely terrified. Look, we have had history with it. I was a finalist for Best Chef the year that the James Beards got canceled. That just sort of blipped and went away. So the next year, being on Outstanding Restaurateur, speaking honestly from the cook’s perspective, I kind of dismissed it. But then one of our chefs was up for Best Chef last year with Michael [Diaz de Leon, former executive chef at Brutø], and that was fun because we finally got to go to the James Beard ceremony and it wasn’t for me… Matt’s [acceptance speech] was so stoic and perfect. That’s the first thing I told Matt after we saw each other in the press room, ‘like, dude, you crushed it.’

Matt: I think it was Richard Blais’ deep breathing exercise… And yeah, just to be there was special in itself. I think cooks are competitive people, so it’s nerve wracking when you’re sitting there wondering if it’s gonna be you. Honestly I thought, ‘hopefully I can just enjoy the rest of the night once someone else’s name is called and we can move on.’

Kelly: Some of the greats out there, they hang on these lists for years. You don’t really know, and you’re in categories where you’d be happy for any of these people to win. They’re all awesome and they all have incredibly unique food stories. For us, too, Erika’s name was first, and I was like, Erika, you have to talk.

Erika: Well, it is that moment where you think you might lose. So in an instant, you have to flip this thing in your mind, and it’s the most wild thing I’ve ever been through in terms of awards and being a part of that. You’re up there, and it’s just this beautiful theater, and you see all these faces of people that you see on TV, and that you’re following, and that you respect so much, and the gravity of it really hits you. And then we kind of just winged it. We had some notes, and there were things that we wanted to say, but we also wanted to be really authentic.

Rootstalk. Photo courtesy of Rootstalk

5280: There’s a sort of bravery to opening a restaurant in the mountains. Id Est mostly operates between Denver and Boulder largely, and, Matt, you have two restaurants out in Breckenridge. What differentiates working out here in the Front Range versus in the mountains?

Matt: First and foremost, seasonality is just different up there. We have really, really busy times and then we have really slow times. There’s less people that live there, so your target audience of local community members is just smaller. And the staffing piece is different. There aren’t as many people to pull from. It’s a more challenging place to live, so you have to want to live there for different reasons, like access to outdoor activities. But we’ve been able to build really great teams that enjoy where they live and enjoy where they work. And then when I first moved up there, all the relationships that I’ve built with farmers and producers, they weren’t necessarily going to drive 75 miles west to bring those products. So we’ve had to cultivate new relationships, bring back some older relationships, and kind of prove that what we’re doing is worth it.

Erika: Can I ask a question? Do you have problems during the wintertime with trucks getting stuck or not making up I-70? And then it’s forcing you to be creative with what’s already in your walk-in?

Matt: Twice a year, you can guarantee that’s gonna happen. When you’re ordering, you’re paying attention to the weather forecast as well as how much food you have in house. So it’s like, ‘Oh, the storm’s moving in. Let’s order big on this so that we’re not depending on a truck on Saturday.’ Because chances are it won’t happen. Then what do you do?

Erika: You’re eating pickles.

Matt: Yeah. You only have what you have and there’s people that are stuck there. They’re skiing, they want to come out to dinner.

5280: Kelly and Erika, I’m guessing your businesses got impacted by that power outage in Boulder that happened a couple months ago.

Kelly: I mean, this is something we’re used to at this point, and it’s something that we all need to get used to. These natural disasters are going to keep happening. Everyone just goes to work and starts grabbing coolers. In terms of the mountains, I think we got used to living with this idea that it’s so beautiful that you don’t really have to do much. People are just there, they’re there to have a good time, and they’re going to eat out. I love that Colorado has been evolving in the mountain towns, and Matt’s setting a precedent for that. We have Michelin rolling in, and that’s upping the ante for Aspen and other communities.

5280: I’m curious, Erika, Kelly, since you two have really created an empire within Id Est, if you have any advice for Matt or other restaurateurs about continuing to expand or operating multiple restaurants?

Kelly: The first time we expanded, we were really not prepared for that. We didn’t create a group that was like, ‘Let’s open six things, let’s go to the airport.’ In fact, Cart-Driver being our second project, I was convinced I needed to build something that would operate off of three people, and we couldn’t do full service. Because I know what it takes to run one restaurant, and I thought I couldn’t leave the oven at Basta. Coming from the chef’s perspective, I don’t think anybody’s ever prepared to grow. We’ve worked on a lot of projects, whether it was Cart-Driver, Beckon, parts of the Source, or like Acreage with Stem Ciders. We built all of those while we were building our own things. But we knew for certain that if it was ours, if it had our name on it, it had to have our voice. Erika, I don’t know what advice you would give from just wearing every single hat in the company.

Erika: I think that Matt’s already doing it. It’s a big lifestyle piece for him, and you have to have that. He has a family and they all enjoy doing that, so what better place to be to ski and to bike during the summer than in Breck.

Kelly: But your point, too, is like, we had a family. It had to fit in. I didn’t want to create something that I had to clock in and clock out of. It needs buy-in from everyone. You don’t need your spouse to work in the business, but there has to be a general understanding because it’s just too complex. Plus, like, you do still need a why. If you do it because you think it’s a good, quick investment, that’s never the case. It will chew up your bank account, it will chew up your life.

The Wolf’s Tailor’s dining space. Photo by Sarah Banks

5280: Matt, do you have any advice for people that are interested in making that extra step?

Matt: You gotta be calculated, you gotta be behind it. It’s not exactly 100 percent more, but it’s more. Kelly’s been saying, if the light’s out, you gotta change the light bulb, right? Now it’s two light bulbs or three or four.

Erika: One thing that I think is really important, especially now when younger chefs want their own places, is spend the money to hire a lawyer to look over your contracts. Because I think a lot of investors really try to hammer in on the creative person, and then by the end of that, the creative person owns very little of the business And that’s not sustainable. Take the time to make sure the contracts are right and that they’re gonna work for you long term, or else don’t get involved with it.

Kelly: You gave everyone advice at the Beards, too: “If you’re struggling, maybe change things up. Hire some women.”

Erika: Aaand hire more women.

5280: There it is. We’re almost out of time, so I’m going to rattle off a couple rapid-fire questions. Whatever comes to your head… favorite ingredient to cook right now?

Kelly: Grain.

Matt: The tomatoes that just came in from Palisade. I was surprised at how good they are.

Erika: Eggs are mine. And I’m not a chef, but I can cook some eggs.

5280: Favorite meal to have at home?

Matt: Thai curry.

Kelly: Grill night, probably.

Erika: Mine’s pasta. When Kelly makes fresh pasta at home, that’s my favorite.

5280: OK, least favorite restaurant trend right now?

Matt: QR code menus.

Kelly: I would probably say being overdesigned. Like I just think at some point, your logo just might be going a little too far with all the other things in the room.

Erika: I would echo that. Maximalism.

5280: Favorite restaurant in Colorado? Not counting anyone at the table.

Kelly: Mine right now is Marigold in Lyons. [Theo Adley] was on the long list [for Best Chef: Mountain]. It would have been so awesome to have him in Chicago with us because he’s a freaking riot and his food is delicious.

Matt: I ate at Josh Niernberg’s Tacoparty a few weeks back and it was awesome.

Erika: I also agree with Kelly. Theo’s restaurant is probably my favorite right now. But I also love Major Tom and Beckon and chef Duncan and Allie [Barham, creative director]. That restaurant’s super special with them there.

5280: And we already kind of covered this, but one thing you would tell someone breaking into the restaurant industry?

Matt: If you love it, and you know your heart’s in it, it’s, in my opinion, the most special industry out there. It will be hard, it will take sacrifice, but I think to be successful at anything, you’re going to have to do that.

Erika: Enjoy what you do, and be your authentic representation of what you want to present. Don’t force it. And also honor your team. Honor the people around you because you certainly can’t do it alone.

Kelly: Don’t sleep on things like being a great communicator or learning about the business side of things. You’re trying to share your craft to the world, and when you jump to the other side of that and open your own place, there’s a different skill set that you need to obtain around communication, leadership, values, character, community. These pop words that you hear, they actually take studying.

Ethan Pan
Ethan Pan
Ethan Pan is 5280’s associate food editor, writing and editing for the print magazine and 5280.com. Follow his dining/cooking Instagram @ethans_pan.