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Orlando Benavidez has cooked for 1,200 hungry gamblers and celebrities on the Las Vegas strip in a single night, but these days, he’d rather cook for you. The New Mexico native, longtime Colorado chef, and owner of the Bits & Pieces con Cerveza food truck already has an impressive culinary career behind him, and the future looks bright, thanks to his line of retail products, which includes supple corn tortillas seasoned with red and green chiles and a versatile range of spice blends.
Food has always played an outsized role in Benavidez’s life, long before he realized that he wanted to cook for a living. His grandfather, Robert Montoya, owned a farm in Mesquite, New Mexico, and Benavidez remembers riding on the tractor with him, surveying fields of green chiles, alfalfa, corn, and cotton. “My love for agriculture and food started there,” he says. “I saw it go from the farm to the plate. My grandmother, Rose, was always cooking, and I was right there beside her, asking questions: Can I taste it? Why did you do that? Can I have some?” Two uncles owned restaurants, too, which is why it made sense to Benavidez to get his first job at McDonald’s, where his aunt was manager, while in high school.
He attended the Culinary Institute in Scottsdale, Arizona, and earned an externship at Fix Restaurant & Bar at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. He dove right into the frenetic, often “in your face” culture of high-volume restaurant work. “They asked me to fly to Vegas to stage [a cooking audition] on a Saturday, and wanted me there on Monday. When I got there, they didn’t ask me about my skills or what I’d learned in school. They asked me one thing: ‘Can you handle being yelled at?’ I replied: ‘I grew up in a Mexican household, so, yes.’” Within days, Benavidez was offered a spot in its externship program.
After his six-month externship, Benavidez finished culinary school, and then returned to Fix, where he cooked his way to sous chef in four years. The turn-and-burn operation was open for just six hours each day during the week, from 5 to 11 p.m., and from 5 to 1 a.m. on weekends; during those six to eight hours, Fix’s kitchen team would feed 800 people “on a slow day” and as many as 1,200 on a busy one. The restaurant sat 190 people at a time, which means every table changed parties between four and six times over the course of an evening—most restaurants hope for two turns per service—and Benavidez, at times manning a 28-burner sauté station with one other cook, prepared dinner for Michael Jordan, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Paris Hilton, and many other celebrities. Ask him about it and he’ll laugh, understating the experience by saying that it taught him “to multitask.”
Before his time in Vegas, Benavidez had worked at Bivins Restaurant in the Park Hyatt Beaver Creek Resort and Spa—and loved living in Colorado. He returned in 2011 to work for chef Richard Sandoval, who was opening Cima at the Westin Riverfront in Avon. Benavidez’s resume continues in Colorado from then on, moving from cooking for Sandoval to working with Austin Cueto of the Kevin Taylor Restaurant Group at Hotel Teatro, to Prima in Vail, back to Denver to work for Mary Nguyen at P17, to Lola Coastal Mexican and Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar under the Big Red F restaurant group—Benavidez’s grandmother’s recipe for red chile pork posole was a staple on the Lola menu for years—and finally, to Mission Yogurt’s airport restaurants, including Root Down DIA.
A random conversation at a GNC health and nutrition store changed that trajectory. Benavidez had been working on a plan to open a food truck for a while, but chatting with a salesperson at a GNC turned out to be revelatory. The man told Benavidez that he and his wife had owned a cake company and proceeded to give Benavidez a piece of advice: Some of the best ideas are in cemeteries because people don’t take the chance. “I walked out of the store, called my manager, and told him that I was leaving,” Benavidez says.
It took about a year to finalize his business plan and find the right truck, but in September 2017, Benavidez launched Bits & Pieces con Cerveza, named for “the bits and pieces we chefs put together into every beautiful plate.” The beer element stems from his love of local brews, which he uses in sauces, to braise meats, and, of course, drinks alongside his food.
The truck specializes in spice-rubbed wings and delectable tacos, built around Benavidez’s own chile corn tortillas and spice blends. “I had done a lot of research on taco trucks in Denver, and I wanted to do something different,” he says. “I brought in green Hatch chiles and New Mexico red chiles to flavor my tortillas, and my Mexican jerk rub was the original spice rub on the truck.” He created that softer, more floral jerk blend from 24 different chiles and spices, and just kept creating more mixes from there, including a zingy lime and pepper dry rub and a New Mexico red chile rub. Right now, he sells six blends in a range of chile heat levels and is working on a line of salt blends, too.
Benavidez’s corn tortillas are obsession-worthy, if you’re the kind of person for whom tortillas inspire that level of devotion. They’re sized for small street tacos, and they smell like fresh masa and chiles and, well, love. They’re never dry, even if you toast them in a skillet or over an open flame, and they heat well from frozen, too. Try them and you will inevitably want to keep a package or two on hand at all times. (Self care.) And keep an eye out for a new black tortilla Benavidez says will be on sale in the coming month or so, made with smoky black chiles.
Bits & Pieces’ truck will be back on the roads of metro Denver in late March, visiting metro area neighborhoods and breweries like Zuni Street Brewing Company in Highland. He’s also planning on a pop-up at Pony Up on April 19 and 20, and will be parked there on Cinco de Mayo, too. Choice Market is already carrying Bits & Pieces’ tortillas and spice mixes at its citywide locations, and they’ll be available at River Bear American Meats’ Leevers Locavore deli counter and at Culture Meat & Cheese inside Denver Central Market in early April.