The morning of January 25 began like any other Wednesday for Denver baker Ismael de Sousa—until he received some special news. While de Sousa was in the midst of production, his friend and fellow baker Jesús Brazón called to tell him that they’d both been named semifinalists for a James Beard Award in the category Outstanding Pastry Chef or Baker. De Sousa was stunned. “I never thought we would be noticed, [our] tiny little bakery,” he says. “It was just unbelievable.”

De Sousa opened Reunion Bread in 2019 at the Source Hotel in RiNo. Tucked inside the industrial chic market hall, the unassuming bakery fills the air with an enticing warmth, as the aromas of caramelized sugar, browned butter, and freshly baked bread waft from its ovens.

Reunion Bakery owner-baker Ismael de Sousa. Photo by Eva Jee

De Sousa was raised in a Portuguese family in the capital city of Caracas, Venezuela. As a boy, his culinary curiosity led him to explore the cuisines of local Portuguese, Italian, and Spanish immigrant communities via at-home kitchen experiments. While de Sousa’s primary pursuits turned academic as he got older, his heart remained connected to all things food, so after medical school and a stint in the pharmaceutical industry, he decided to leave Venezuela and enrolled in a culinary arts program in London. De Sousa spent 18 months studying and working in restaurants—immersing himself in the diverse foods and cultures of the expansive city.

“The time I lived in Europe opened my eyes so much,” he says of the transformative period when he found true joy and fulfillment cooking for others. “I found that I could make people happy by feeding them.”

In 2016, de Sousa’s culinary journey brought him to the United States. Keen to expand his skills beyond the savory, he accepted a position at Miami’s famed Zak the Baker, where he dove head first into the world of dough. He learned traditional bread making under the tutelage of chef-owner Zak Stern and his team of expert bakers. Stern—who had also left the medical field for a culinary career—became a tremendous source of inspiration for de Sousa, as both men found nontraditional paths into the culinary world. After two years in Miami working with Stern, de Sousa was ready to embark on a project of his own. He headed west, landing in Denver.

Since he launched Reunion four years ago, de Sousa has brought on new staff, increased production, and expanded his wholesale partnerships. But one thing stays the same: The bakery’s unwavering commitment to using the best ingredients. For example, lemon zest from Europe adds a subtle floral note to bite-size pastéis de nata—Portuguese custard tarts, encased in shatteringly crisp pastry shells. Piloncillo—an unrefined Mexican brown sugar—and cotija cheese add a salty-sweet complexity to the bakery’s signature Venezuelan sticky buns. Sourced a little closer to home, Colorado-grown wheat serves as the foundation for Reunion’s high-hydration bread dough, resulting in deeply flavorful loaves with a tender crumb. “Someone told me back in the day, when I opened the bakery, ‘No matter the price, no matter what you pay, do not ever compromise quality,’” de Sousa says.

A variety of naturally leavened loaves at Reunion. Photo by Eva Jee

Earlier in January, de Sousa spent two weeks visiting bakeries throughout Europe, recharging after a nonstop holiday season. (Picture de Sousa baking loaves of panettone at all hours of the night because, well, proofed dough waits for no one.) While in Paris, de Sousa spent an afternoon working alongside pastry chef Philippe Conticini. The Michelin-starred pro’s methods opened de Sousa’s eyes to new ways of controlling chemical reactions and flavor profiles. De Sousa returned from his travels invigorated with ideas for a new menu, which guests can now enjoy at Reunion. Keep an eye out for savory additions such as rotating flavors of quiche and panini-style sandwiches and sweets like seasonal tarts, croissants, and cream-filled choux creations.

It is already shaping up to be a big year for the little bakery, after de Sousa’s James Beard semifinalist nod, as throngs of hungry guests line up to peruse the pastry case. In the coming weeks, de Sousa will welcome avid home bakers for a limited series of croissant and bread workshops. And later this spring, production will shift into high gear for Reunion’s fifth season connecting with the community at the Cherry Creek farmers’ market.

3350 Brighton Blvd.

[Read more about Denver’s best bakeries.]