Back when I was an editorial intern for 5280, one of my first assignments was to call chef Manny Barella to fact check a story in our August 2021 issue. At the time, he was still in his first year as executive chef at Bellota, where he’d eventually earn a James Beard Award nod and a spot on our 25 Best Restaurants list. A lot has changed since then: Barella left the now-closed restaurant in October 2022, and a few months later, he assumed the culinary director position for Camp Pickle and Jaguar Bolera (more on that below).

Oh, and he’s on season 21 of Top Chef, which premieres this Wednesday.

After meeting him in real life last month at his limited pop up, Mientras, at Cantina Loca, though, there’s one thing I know hasn’t changed. Barella is one of the nicest chefs in Denver. Through the phone all those years ago, I could hear him smile as we talked about his food. (I’d be happy with developing his risotto-style elote, too, after trying it for myself.) And after he stood at my table speaking of new dishes like veal birria mafaldine, I can confirm his charm in person. As a lifelong Top Chef fan, I have never rooted for a cheftestant more. Here’s why.

Barella’s culinary style is more compelling than ever.

Manny Barella speaking to a table of two
Barella stopping by the author’s table at his pop up, Mientras. Photo by Amber Boutwell

Most Denverites likely know Barella from his time at Bellota, where he focused on replicating his native Mexican flavors as faithfully as possible here in Denver. “[I was] unapologetically not catering to the American palate,” he says.

But since leaving his home country 14 years ago, Barella has ventured across the United States working in a variety of kitchen settings, including stints at Frasca Food and Wine and Uchi Denver. “I’ve worked from changing chafers at a buffet in a casino in Mississippi,” he says, “to a five-star resort, to French cuisine, a steakhouse, Japanese, Italian.” Because his goal at Bellota was to produce an indisputably Mexican menu, he couldn’t take full advantage of his culinary experience there. But for his pop-up concept, which has been running since late February, and the menus at Camp Pickle and Jaguar Bolera, he’s ready to dream up dishes that utilize his whole toolbox.

The birria mafaldine, which Barella picks out as a highlight of Mientras’ four-course tasting menu, is an especially delicious example of that. He coats the long, ribbon-shaped Italian pasta in a saucy version of the chile-laden Mexican stew; to really mimic the inspiration, he sprinkles it with Cotija cheese, raw chopped onion, and cilantro and serves it with a wedge of lime. Other menu highlights include the salsa-macha-dressed steak tartare and the smoked lobster tetela, which, with its corn soubise sauce, strangely smacks of New England chowder.

Top Chef is more than just a competition for him.

Manny Barella cooking in a Top Chef kitchen.
Barella in the first episode of Top Chef season 21. Photo by David Moir/Bravo

If you can’t sample Barella’s creations yourself, do the next best thing: Tune into the new season of Top Chef.

Like for many contestants, Top Chef was an opportunity for Barella to test his skills against other esteemed chefs and grow his own craft, but for him, it also meant justifying his personal sacrifices. “Leaving family and friends behind 14 years ago… it needs to mean something,” he says. “Seeing my mom so proud that she cries, [that lets me think that] I’m doing something good and I made a good decision on coming to the States.”

Nevertheless, Barella was nervous when leaving for Wisconsin, where this season is set. Barella confesses that he initially thought the location was somewhat “random” and had never considered visiting “America’s Dairyland” before—no less because he isn’t the biggest fan of cheese. And though he got his fill of cheese just by being on Top Chef, he looks forward to someday revisiting Wisconsin as a tourist to actually explore its culture without the restrictions of a strict filming schedule.

If you haven’t heard, Top Chef is, in its own way, entering uncharted territory. Last year, longtime host Padma Lakshmi stepped down from her role after completing her 19th season, with Kristen Kish, the winner of Top Chef season 10, coming in as her replacement. Barella welcomed the change. “The people that have gone through [competing on Top Chef] are the only ones that will ever understand. And Kristen being one of those, she can relate to us,” he relays. “And that goes both ways because [she won, so she can say,] ‘Well, I did it, why can’t you?’”

And for people who’ve never watched Top Chef—or are put off by the fact that it’s technically a reality show on Bravo—Barella has this to say: “A lot of people think that because it’s on Bravo and it’s a reality show, it’s staged. I can tell you that it is not staged. Everything is real. They don’t want drama. They want good food. Let’s just put it this way. We don’t call it a cooking show. It’s a cooking competition. We just happen to be on TV.”

Barella already has exciting plans for the future.

Barella preparing a plate in a restaurant kitchen
Barella in the kitchen. Photo by Amber Boutwell

Barella loves waking up to the mountains. It reminds him of his hometown, Monterrey, and while he certainly misses where he grew up—he says the al pastor there is unmatched—he’s stuck around Colorado for six years now.

He’s considered moving out of the Centennial State, and he almost did to help open Uchi Miami as the sous chef there—a job he accepted in February 2020. After that plan was scrapped and he was offered his position at Bellota, Barella decided to establish himself in Denver’s dining scene, a choice he still stands by. “There’s a very healthy mix between big town and small city with [Denver’s] food scene growing,” he says. “Being able to be part of that growth of the food scene, we can actually make real change here.”

Ironically, Barella’s current position as culinary director of two in-the-works eatertainment concepts from Robert Thompson (of Punch Bowl Social fame) requires him to, once again, spend time across the country. Camp Pickle, a sprawling venue for pickleball and summer-camp-inspired eats, is set to debut Colorado locations in Centennial and Globeville, along with outposts in Alabama, Oklahoma, and North Carolina, in the coming year. Jaguar Bolera, which will focus on indoor games and fuse Mexican and Southern cuisines, will open in Raleigh in the next few months, with a location in Georgia following that.

With menu development already complete, Barella’s day-to-day now involves everything from kitchen planning to establishing vendor relationships—and a lot of traveling. At the heart of the work is understanding how to mass produce recipes without sacrificing their integrity. For Barella, it’s a big shift from more regular back-of-the-house jobs, but he says it’s been a valuable crash course on the business side of restaurateurship.

I hope that translates to Barella’s own restaurant one day. (He has a concept in mind but doesn’t want to speak to it just yet.) In the meantime, I’ll be fighting to taste his food whenever I can, and of course, I’ll be cheering him on from my couch every Wednesday. For what it’s worth, he’s already a top chef in my book.

Reservations for Barella’s limited pop up, Mientras, are available through the first week of April.

Ethan Pan
Ethan Pan
Ethan Pan is 5280’s associate food editor, writing and editing for the print magazine and Follow his dining/cooking Instagram @ethans_pan.