With the words, “Wow, I’m just really happily surprised…holy crap!” Denver chef Jennifer Jasinski began her acceptance speech at the 2013 James Beard Foundation Awards. After two previous nominations in 2011 and 2012, Jasinski won the Best Chef Southwest medal for her work at Rioja, her flagship restaurant.

Jasinski beat out a group of heavy hitters, including Kevin Binkley of Binkley’s Restaurant in Cave Creek, Arizona; Bryce Gilmore from Barley Swine in Austin, Texas; as well as two Houston-based chefs, Hugo Ortega of Hugo’s and Chris Shepherd of Underbelly. Winning the award was tremendous in itself but its significance was magnified by the fact that the honor had never been won by a Denver chef.

The awards ceremony, which was held on May 6 in New York City, marked the annual celebration of the country’s best chefs and restaurants—and it is widely regarded as the Oscars of the food industry. As a result of Jasinski’s win, Denver, now more than ever, leaves its mark on the culinary map of the United States.

Jasinski, who is also the chef and co-owner of Bistro Vendôme and Euclid Hall with partner Beth Gruitch, joined two other women chefs in taking home the coveted awards. After thanking her business partner, her husband (the Squeaky Bean chef Max MacKissock), and her mother, Jasinski noted how difficult it is to be a chef in today’s world stating, “Rioja’s been there for nine years and it’s an everyday struggle to stay relevant, to stay important, and to have the best service.” However, she concluded with her characteristic optimism, “I just love what I do, so I want to keep having fun.” Denver is proud to have her cooking—and having fun—at a mile high.

Bonus: Stay tuned next week, when we honor Frasca Food and Wine for taking home this year’s James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine Program.

—Photo courtesy of Kent Miller