For the second year in a row, thirteen Colorado-based chefs and restaurants have been nominated as semifinalists for the James Beard 2024 Restaurant and Chef Awards.

The prestigious annual awards are often described as the Oscars of the food industry and one of the highest culinary honors in the United States. As Ken Wan, executive chef of MAKfam and a current semifinalist for the Emerging Chef award, puts it, “For industry people, the James Beard Foundation is the S-tier group that you hope to be recognized by.”

With so many talented chefs and delicious dishes among us, 5280 sat down with some of this year’s Colorado semifinalists to learn what they personally want guests to try at their restaurants, and to get the scoop on their James Beard nod.

Outstanding Restaurant: Beckon

The intimate, 18-seat Beckon has been dazzling guests with its contemporary chef’s counter experience since opening in 2018. Led by chef Duncan Holmes, who previously appeared on James Beard’s 2020 long list in the Best Chef: Mountain category, the restaurant was one of five to earn a coveted Michelin star in Colorado’s inaugural guide last year.

When the Michelin guide came out, we were so pleased, flattered and honored, and the James Beard nod is certainly an extension of those feelings,” Holmes says. 

What they want you to eat: A5 Wagyu and Squab

Holmes: We have a wagyu supplement that we keep on the menu year-round because it’s an amazing product. A5 wagyu beef is not something everyone gets to have, and it’s a staple at Beckon. On the current menu, one of the things that we love making is squab. We get to use the whole bird—confit the legs, grill the breast, make a sauce out of the bones. It’s a great example of a Beckon dish, encompassing the whole bird in an elegant way. 

What they want you to drink: Ask the sommelier

Holmes: Right now we have a few wine options pouring by the glass and tiers of wine pairings. There’s a Pinot Noir and a Syrah, both of which could be fun options. And earlier in winter we did a squab and citrus dish paired with Riesling, which was really unique. 

One more bite: For a more approachable vibe, visit Beckon’s sister restaurant Major Tom in RiNo

Emerging Chef: Kenneth “Ken” Wan, MAKfam

The Fancy Wonton Tong at MAKFam. Photo by Jeff Fierberg

Chef Ken Wan opened MAKfam with his wife, Doris Yuen, last November. The restaurant’s name is reminiscent of the couple’s former post at Avanti Food & Beverage, Meta Asian Kitchen, where they won over the hearts and stomachs of Denverites with their Chinese-inspired street food.

“I couldn’t have done this by myself. My wife Doris has been with me since day one, and the team at MAKfam works so hard. James Beard is such a prestigious foundation and being recognized by them is a dream come true,” Wan says.

What they want you to eat: Chinatown dumplings and Fancy Wonton Tong

Wan: If you’ve never been to MAKfam before, definitely try the Chinatown dumplings. We spent an entire month developing them and it’s probably one of our favorite items. Another is our Fancy Wonton Tong, which pays a bit of homage to my parents’ takeout place. We use a base of creamy chicken broth, from-scratch wontons filled with chicken and shrimp, and a drizzle of housemade XO sauce.

What they want you to drink: The MSGin and Grass Panda cocktails

Wan: Grace, our bartender, has been working really hard to give our cocktail menu a funky flair. I’m a big fan of the MSGin, which has a savory martini vibe. I also like the Grass Panda with grass jelly on top. 

One more bite: Starting this spring, MAKfam will host weekend brunch with specialty cocktails and Chinese-inspired breakfast items, such as jianbing, an eggy Chinese crêpe.

Outstanding Wine & Other Beverages Program: Sunday Vinyl

The 1923 Seppeltsfield Para Vintage Tawny at Sunday Vinyl. Photo by Casey Wilson

From the brains behind Frasca Hospitality Group, Sunday Vinyl first burst onto the scene in 2019 as Tavernetta’s little sister concept. For the second consecutive year, the laid-back wine bar has earned a nod from the James Beard Foundation for its extensive wine program, curated by lead sommelier Clara Klein.

It’s a complete honor to get nominated two years in a row. Now we know last year wasn’t a miscount,” Clara jokes. 

What they want you to drink: The 2021 J.L. Chave Sélection Marsanne Blend and the 1923 Seppeltsfield Para Vintage Tawny

Klein: My favorite pairing right now would be the J.L. Chave Sélection 2021 Marsanne Blend. It’s perfect for food—not too high in acid but there’s plenty of texture and warmth to it. Another thing that’s a total sleeper hit on our list is the sweet wine program. We have one wine that’s over 100 years old, which we pour by the eyedropper. It comes from the Seppeltsfield family, who age the grapes in oak for over a century, making for an intense caramelized experience. 

What they want you to eat: Sue Buxton scallops with the J.L. Chave; banana ice cream with the Seppeltsfield 

Klein: Any kind of seafood would pair well with the J.L. Chave. The Sue Buxton scallops on our menu right now would be delicious. The Seppeltsfield is so powerful that it’s an after-dessert delight, for sure. Personally, I could drizzle it right on top of some banana ice cream and be a happy woman.

One more sip: Stop by on Wednesdays for Sunday Vinyl’s weekly Flight Night event, where the sommelier team pairs a musical artist—previous iterations include Dolly Parton and Usher—with a flight of four wines.

Best New Restaurant: Sắp Sửa

Bún riêu con trai (mussels in chile-lemongrass sauce at Sắp Sửa). Photo courtesy of Sắp Sửa

Sắp Sửa opened its highly anticipated brick-and-mortar location last June and shortly thereafter was placed on 5280’s 25 Best New Restaurants in Denver and Esquire’s 50 Best New Restaurants in America. Helmed by married chefs Anna and Ni Nguyen, the nontraditional Vietnamese restaurant is now up for its first James Beard award. 

“We’re most excited about being nominated for a category that represents the restaurant as a whole. We’re endlessly grateful for our staff,” Anna says.

What they want you to eat: Bún riêu con trai

Anna: Currently we’re running a bún riêu, which is typically a hot noodle soup made from a crab and tomato broth. With ours, we make [a version of that broth that was developed by the youngest chef in our kitchen] and set mussels in it with chile-lemongrass sauce and a bunch of wine and herbs. It’s a fun interpretation of a dish rooted in tradition.

What they want you to drink: The Riesling program

Anna: We brought on George Wright as beverage director around October and he’s put together a really fantastic Riesling program. We have a few that would pair really well with the bún riêu.

One more bite: Sắp Sửa will start hosting chef takeovers on select Tuesdays, allowing up and coming chefs to showcase their own menus for a night.

Best Chef, Mountain: Erasmo “Ras” Casiano & Diego Coconati, Lucina Eatery & Bar

The Y Claro dessert (an éclair with Mexican elements) at Lucina Eatery & Bar. Photo courtesy of Lucina Eatery & Bar

Since first opening its doors in 2022, Lucina Eatery & Bar (named after chef Ras Casiano’s mother) has been tantalizing Denver’s tastebuds with dishes inspired by Casiano’s Mexican upbringing and chef Diego Coconati’s South American and Caribbean childhood. The restaurant has earned numerous accolades, including a spot on 5280’s 25 Best Restaurants in Denver in 2023. Casiano and Coconati also own Create Kitchen & Bar, a culinary school in the Stanley Marketplace.

“We were honored and humbled by the James Beard nomination. For us, we measure success by our staff retention, our seats being full on a daily basis, and our repeat guests. It’s a total team effort, not just about me or Diego,” Casiano says.

What they want you to eat: Ceviche de coco, pato con mole, and the Y Claro dessert

Casiano: A new item that people should try is the ceviche de coco made with Chilean salmon, coconut leche de tigre, red onion, habanero, and tostaditas [mini tostadas]. Also get the pato con mole. I watched my mom make mole all my life and this is my best attempt at it. We serve it with duck confit, xni pec (which is a great way to prepare onions by saturating them with ground habanero and lime juice) and our house-made tortillas. A fun way to finish a meal at Lucina is with the Y Claro, a dessert our pastry chef Hannah Lavoy conceptualized. It’s basically an éclair with Mexican elements like chocolate, cinnamon, Mexican coffee, caramelized white chocolate, and cocoa nibs. 

What they want you to drink: The Pachamama and Arroz con Leche cocktails

Casiano: I’m a big fan of the Arroz con Leche, which is our take on a horchata cocktail. It adds a really nice coating to the palate. Another great drink is the Pachamama, which refers to a “Mother Earth” goddess in South America and parts of Central America. It’s a very herbaceous, refreshing cocktail with smoky elements from the mezcal. 

One more bite: Keep an eye out for Xiquita, a new Mexican concept by Casiano and Coconati opening in Uptown later this year.

Best Chef, Mountain: Matt Vawter, Rootstalk

The dry-aged beef from Justin Brunson of Brunson Meat Co. Photo courtesy of Rootstalk

When designing Rootstalk, chef Matt Vawter wanted to make guests feel like they’re eating at an old friend’s house. The comfortable yet upscale restaurant, which changes its tasting menu around 10 times per year, is located inside a historic home off of Breckenridge’s Main Street. This is his first nod from James Beard.

It’s awesome for the town of Breckenridge and to bring some appreciation for what my teams are doing every day, night in and night out,” Vawter says.

What they want you to eat: Tartare and dry-aged beef from Justin Brunson of Brunson Meat Co.

Vawter: The tasting menu is a really fun way to dine at Rootstalk. It’s seven courses and gives guests the opportunity to try a lot of different things. We’re adding a beef tartare and a Colorado lamb tartare to that which I’m really excited about, playing into flavors like red beet, green olive, fennel jam, and egg yolk. Also, anything featuring Justin Brunson’s dry-aged beef program is fantastic.

What they want you to drink: Anything on the wine and cocktail list

Vawter: I’m super proud of our wine and cocktail program, and our sommelier team does a great job with pairings. 

One more bite: Brunson’s dry-aged steak is also available in a larger, shareable format at Radicato, Vawter’s casual Italian dining concept. 

Outstanding Restaurateur: Kelly & Erika Whitaker, Id Est Hospitality Group

The wood-fired piada bread at the Wolf’s Tailor and Brutø. Photo by Jeff Fierberg

Husband-and-wife team Kelly and Erika Whitaker helm Id Est Hospitality, which operates locally beloved establishments like the Wolf’s Tailor and Brutø (both Michelin-starred), Basta, Hey Kiddo, and Dry Storage. For the Whitakers, awards like James Beards are a means to gaining a larger platform. 

As chef Kelly says, “Most of what we do is rooted in sustainability and a zero-waste mentality. It’s important for us to be recognized for our practices so we can gain a bigger audience to speak about building a better future.”

What they want you to eat: Piada bread

Kelly: Selfishly, I always shout out our piada bread. It’s really light and airy, crispy on the outside, cooks for 45 seconds in a wood burning oven, and is made to order. We work with farmers from all over Colorado and mill our own flour, so that bread is really a representation of who we are. 

What they want you to drink: Cocktails at OK Yeah

Erika: The OK Yeah bar behind Hey Kiddo has a great cocktail program and also serves hand rolls using scraps from the Hey Kiddo kitchen to create really yummy bites that change daily.

One more bite: The Brutø team recently announced Top Chef alum Byron Gomez as its new executive chef. Make a reservation (if you can get one) to see how Id Est’s sustainability practices translate to his cooking.

James Beard finalists will be announced April 3, and winners will be announced June 10. View the full list of James Beard 2024 Restaurant and Chef Awards semifinalists here, and check out all the Colorado nominees below: 

  • Outstanding Restaurateur: Kelly Whitaker, Id Est Hospitality Group (The Wolf’s Tailor, BRUTØ, Basta, and others), Boulder, CO
  • Outstanding Chef: Barclay Dodge, Bosq, Aspen, CO
  • Outstanding Restaurant: Beckon, Denver, CO
  • Emerging Chef: Kenneth Wan, MAKfam, Denver, CO
  • Best New Restaurant: Sắp Sửa, Denver, CO
  • Outstanding Pastry Chef or Baker: Carolyn Nugent and Alen Ramos, Poulette Bakeshop, Parker, CO
  • Outstanding Wine and Other Beverages Program: Sunday Vinyl, Denver, CO
  • Best Chef: Mountain (CO, ID, MT, UT, WY): Theo Adley, Marigold, Lyons, CO
  • Best Chef: Mountain (CO, ID, MT, UT, WY): Erasmo Casiano and Diego Coconati, Lucina Eatery & Bar, Denver, CO
  • Best Chef: Mountain (CO, ID, MT, UT, WY): Aminata “Ami” Dia and Rougui Dia, Le French, Denver, CO
  • Best Chef: Mountain (CO, ID, MT, UT, WY): Bo Porytko, Molotov Kitschen + Cocktails, Denver, CO
  • Best Chef: Mountain (CO, ID, MT, UT, WY): Penelope Wong, Yuan Wonton, Denver, CO
  • Best Chef: Mountain (CO, ID, MT, UT, WY): Matt Vawter, Rootstalk, Breckenridge, CO

Sara Rosenthal
Sara Rosenthal
Sara Rosenthal is a freelance writer based in Denver focused on hospitality, restaurants, real estate, and art.