Culinary Grad Receives Colorado Culinary Icon Awards
Filed under: Culinary
April 5, 2016
Elise Wiggins, a graduate of The Art Institute of Colorado, was recently named a “Colorado Culinary Icon” by the Colorado branch of the American Culinary Federation. She received the award during the “Celebration of the Colorado Culinary Community” event.
Elise, who in 1998 earned an Associate of Applied Science in Culinary Arts, is now Executive Chef at Panzano Restaurant in Denver. She explains her path to culinary arts and her success as a chef in the buzz-worthy Denver restaurant scene.
“I always say when I teach classes that you need to let the food [talk to] you. A recipe is a great guideline but you need to let the food tell you what to do with it.”
You’ve Been Executive Chef at Panzano Restaurant since 2004. How have you built your strong reputation in the industry?
My joke [about joining Panzano] is that I did not have big shoes to fill, I had thigh-high boots to fill. [I had to build] my crew, get regulars to come in and get to know my food, follow my food, and fall in love with my food. That took many years, but perseverance, determination, and continued teaching with the staff is what got us here today.
What’s a day in your work life look like?
My day varies. [Sometimes] I come in early and work on the menus. I watch lunch get set up, hang out with the prep cooks in the kitchen, then go back to the office and work on new [menu items]. I’ll work the dinner shift until almost closing time.
Many people watch cooking shows on TV and get interested in working in a restaurant. What is the reality of a culinary career?
You really have to love every aspect of cooking, even the tedious stuff. Making 1,000 raviolis a day is hard, but you need to appreciate the tedious stuff. It has to ring your bell, or you will burn yourself out.
Everything is repetitive, but you don’t get really good at something unless you do it over and over again. If you are making pasta dough over and over through the years, you will realize that the pasta dough changes with the weather. The more you handle a product the more it speaks to you. One of the downfalls of coming out of culinary school is that the students will follow the recipes exactly as it says. But you don’t know if that recipe was made on the east coast or west coast or further north in America because climates are different. A recipe is a great guideline but you need to let the food tell you what to do with it.
How did your education prepare you for a culinary career?
[A chef where I was working] actually encouraged me to go to culinary school. He said, “you have learned a lot underneath me but I encourage you to go to culinary school so that you can understand the why of what you are doing.” If you don’t know the why, the bases, and how to dice things in the proper sizes, then you don’t understand how the end product comes out. You really need to have that in order to get where you need to be, and at the level of where you want to be.
What hard lessons have you learned in the industry?
I worked in a 4-diamond restaurant in Puerto Rico. The expectations were really high. I did not know when I signed the contract that I signed for a 6-day minimum workweek. I recommend to people that when they think they are going to paradise to work, that they read the contract before they sign it. I could never take vacation and worked 6 or 7 days in a row for 12-15 hours per day. I’ve learned to look at the fine print now.
It was also really tough coming into Panzano, Half of the crew left to go work with [the former executive chef]. That is natural but it is tough to create good food with half the staff that you need. It was tough but I persevered. One day at a time.
What advice to you have for budding culinary students?
I highly recommend that students always stay humble. You don’t know everything, and you won’t know everything. There are great chefs all over the world and they see something and they say, “I didn’t know that.” If you humble yourself, you open yourself to learn and people will teach you. I’m always trying to get into somebody’s kitchen and see how they are doing it.
[At school] orientation, an instructor talked about the commitment needed to do succeed in a culinary career. I greatly appreciated that. I knew what I wanted to do, but [his insights] made me say “this doesn’t scare me. I’m going to be great; I’m going to do this!” But it was realistic.
What’s the most requested dish on your menu?
Fungi Crespelli (mushroom crepes). I go to Italy every year, often twice a year. And on one of my trips, I went to Valdosta region, had the mushroom crepes, and fell in love. So that is why I go to Italy every year—to discover a dish that is authentic and regional. I bring it back and put it on the menu. As soon as I put [the crepes] on, people just fell in love. At the time nobody was doing that. Anybody can do a Carbonara or a Bolognese. But I really want to do dishes that people aren’t doing.
Do you continue to have ties to The Art Institute of Colorado?
[My first] pastry chef came to me as a student from The Art Institute of Colorado, and I worked with her closely to help her find her style. She ended up getting awarded as the best “30 under 30” in Zagat. That was tremendous.
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