Executive Chef, Panzano Restaurant
The Art Institute of Colorado
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. Elise Wiggins , Executive Chef, Panzano Restaurant Associate of Applied Science in Culinary Arts, 1998 , The Art Institute of Colorado
Since 2004, Elise Wiggins has been the executive chef at Panzano Restaurant in Denver, Colorado. When she started the job, she says she didn’t just have big shoes to fill, she had “thigh-high boots to fill.” Elise began by building a strong kitchen crew and worked toward her goal of growing a strong group of “regulars,” or people who know and follow her food. “It took many years to build and make Panzano what it is today. But perseverance, determination, and continued teaching with the staff is what got us here,” she says.
She urges students to work with recipes—not just follow them exactly. “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. Flours are different, sugar is different, salt is even different. You need to expose yourself to the different ingredients.”
Elise’s connection with The Art Institute of Colorado paid off especially well for a fellow graduate—who worked as a pastry chef at Panzano. “She came to me as a student and I worked with her closely and helped her find her style. I exposed her to Italian cuisine and pastries and she just blossomed and grew. She ended up getting ‘Best 30 Under 30’ in Zagat. That was tremendous.” Elise adds that it was a struggle to add the pastry chef position to her restaurant’s tight budget—but it was one that paid off. “Not only did we increase sales but we were able to do the cakes in house. It was a win-win situation across the board.”
The demands of the culinary industry are not for everyone, she cautions. “Making a thousand raviolis a day is hard but you need to appreciate the tedious stuff. It has to ring your bell. You have to really enjoy it. Otherwise you will burn yourself out.” Elise believes that repetition builds knowledge of food and preparation techniques. “If you are making pasta dough over and over the years, you will realize that the pasta dough changes with the weather. The more moisture that is in the atmosphere, the more moisture is in the dough. The time of year the flour was milled has an impact on the flour and the moisture. The more you handle a product, the more it speaks to you.”
Elise, who in 1998 earned an Associate of Applied Science in Culinary Arts from The Art Institute of Colorado, says that her education built upon her existing love of culinary arts. “[A chef where I worked] actually encouraged me to go to culinary school. [He said] if you don’t know the why and the bases and how to dice things in the proper sizes, then you don’t understand how the end product comes out.” She encourages current students to focus on the “why” in culinary school. “You really need to have that in order to get where you need to be, at the level of where you want to be. If you really want to be a chef you need to get as much education as you possibly can.”
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