Eric Rivera, exec chef of Cafe|Bar, on pretty legs, butt cracks and the exploding salmon eyeball

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Lori Midson

Eric Rivera
295 South Pennsylvania Street

It's been just three weeks since Cafe|Bar opened its doors, but executive chef Eric Rivera already feels very much at home. The 26-year-old, who was born in Ohio and raised in Colorado, had spent the past three years leading the line at Lala's Pizzeria + Wine Bar, but at the end of August, he left his whites - and pizza - behind to regain his sense of self. "I left Lala's because I'd lost my sense of adventure," he discloses. "I felt stymied and road-blocked, my passion for cooking wasn't growing, my focus was being pulled away from food to other areas of the business, and I needed a change of scenery."

Cafe|Bar, says Rivera, is exactly the swap he needed. "I want to see myself grow personally and professionally, and I can see myself doing both of those things here," he maintains. "The fact that I have unlimited creative freedom when it comes to the food -- not to mention the ability to showcase what I can really do -- makes this a perfect place for me."

And the gleaming exhibition kitchen, which puts him front and center, is the ideal spot to sling a sauté pan. "I got my first kitchen job at sixteen at Noodles & Co. on sauté, and I can't even begin to tell you how much I loved having that sauté pan in my hand," he says. "You can do so damn much with it, you have full control over the food, and it's high intensity - a major adrenaline rush - and in this kitchen, I get to use a sauté pan a lot, and I love that."

He's loved cooking since he was a kid, hovering in the kitchen of his Puerto Rican grandmother. "Her kitchen was my first real introduction to cooking, and she had such an intense passion for food that it made me want to try my own hand at cooking, and once I did, I immediately fell in love with it," says Rivera, who's wielded knives in several restaurants in Colorado Springs and Denver, including the Denver ChopHouse and Marlowe's, where he was the sous chef for three years. "We transformed Marlowe's while I was there - everything about the kitchen, we changed for the better -- and it was a crazy-amazing learning experience that transformed me as a chef," he remembers.

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