Chef Amos Watts once asked me to step into his shoes—literally. We somehow got on the topic of the contrasting sizes of our feet while I was eating brunch at the Fifth String, his now-closed LoHi restaurant, a couple years ago, and he insisted that I try on his kitchen clogs. It seemed like a silly, one-of-a-kind request, particularly from a fine-dining chef.

But Sheila Lucero, culinary director of Jax Fish House and Oyster Bar and Centro Mexican Kitchen, confirms that it wasn’t unusual. When Watts worked at Jax as a line cook in the early 2000s and then as executive chef from 2011 to 2013, the pair always shared laughs about the disparate sizes of their hands and feet because Watts towered over Lucero in stature. “He got the biggest kick out of me putting my feet with my clogs on into his shoes,” she says.

Amos Watts and the Jax team in the early 2000s.
Amos Watts (second from the left) and the Jax team in the early 2000s. Photo courtesy of Sheila Lucero

On April 28, Watts died suddenly at the age of 43. Over the past 20 years, Watts helmed prominent Front Range kitchens such as the now-closed Acorn, Boulder’s Corrida, and Old Major, whose space he took over to open the Fifth String in 2020. When friends, colleagues, and patrons learned about his passing, tributes celebrating the Denver restaurant industry veteran flooded social media. The posts honor his talent, work ethic, and perhaps most of all, his sense of humor.

Lucero says Watts always found ways to lighten the mood during the long hours they spent in the kitchen at Jax. “There wasn’t a day that went by that literally my stomach didn’t hurt from laughing so hard working with him,” she says. “He just had a natural comedic sense.”

The Fifth String
The Fifth String. Photo by Travis Pahler

Kip Wilson, co-host of the “Stoned Appetit” podcast, always appreciated Watt’s open mind and willingness to have a good time. The pair bonded over their love of music—the Fifth String’s name refers to the banjo, and Watts was a fan of Phish and the Grateful Dead—and even more so, food and drink. “Our relationship was built on finding the positives in life and the joy in small things,” Wilson says. “We were able to goof off a lot.”

Wilson reminisces about the night he and Watts got drunk together making lasagna and ended up wrestling over who was going to make cornbread. And he will never forget how Watts helped him create an indulgent fried green tomato BLT in 2022 to feature on the 4/20 menu at Open (a sandwich shop inside Goosetown Tavern). “His arms were always wide open to teaching others and he was a hoot to hang out with,” Wilson says. “By God, we’re going to miss the shit out of him.”

Watts was never too busy to show less experienced chefs the ropes, and his empathetic leadership style made him a mentor to many in the local dining scene. Russell Stippich, the executive chef at Bar Dough, credits Watts for teaching him how to run a kitchen efficiently. Stippich cooked with Watts at Acorn and the pair remained friends ever since.

“If I was having a hard day or needed to vent, I could walk over to the Fifth String when it was up in the Highlands and just say hi [to Amos],” he says. “And I’d get a classic hug from the guy that was so hard that you thought you might die. He was so loving, just a really good friend.”

Watts’ jolly personality was complemented by a well-respected culinary prowess, evidenced by a career that spanned 25 years. The Omaha, Nebraska–born chef attended Denver’s Johnson & Wales, where he met his wife and business partner, Jessica McCabe. “He was just such a wonderful person and friend,” Lucero says. “And of course, we all know how talented he was.”

Kip Wilson and Amos Watts at the Fifth String
Amos Watts (left) and Kip Wilson at the Fifth String. Photo courtesy of Kip Wilson

We featured the Fifth String—where Watts’ tallow candle bread service, French dip sandwiches, and cheese-crusted omelets always satisfied the stomach and soul—on 5280’s Best Restaurants list in 2022 before it shuttered in August 2023. After a short stint inside Attimo Winery, Watts planned to reopen the restaurant in a new Park Hill location this month, just days before his death.

The last time I chatted with Watts was via text in September 2023, when I told him I couldn’t come to the opening of the Fifth String inside Attimo Winery because I was nine months along with my son, Jack. After learning about the restaurant’s relocation to Park Hill last month, I thought about sending him a message of congratulations. But I didn’t. Sometimes it’s easy to delay chatting with or seeing the characters in your life when they’re just a text message or visit away—until they aren’t.

Let my regrets be a reminder to follow through and show up for those who bring joy to your world. Because when they’re gone, it’s impossible to fill their shoes.

A GoFundMe has been set up in Watts’ memory to support the Fifth String family; Big Red F Restaurant Group will also host a memorial honoring his life in late May (details to be announced). 

Patricia Kaowthumrong
Patricia Kaowthumrong
Patricia joined the 5280 staff in July 2019 and is thrilled to oversee all of the magazine’s dining coverage. Follow her food reporting adventures on Instagram @whatispattyeating.