Dana Rodriguez, exec chef of Bistro Vendome, on pig fat, bitches and battles
This is part one of my interview with Dana Rodriguez, exec chef of Bistro Vendôme. Part two of that interview will run in this space tomorrow.
Last month, three lawyers swaggered into Bistro Vendôme for dinner. One was from Puerto Rico, another hailed from San Francisco, and the third was visiting from Europe. They asked to see the chef. When Dana Rodriguez came out from the kitchen, clad in a black T-shirt and white apron, the men were flummoxed. "Bistro Vendôme is a French restaurant, and they were expecting a French chef -- not a girl in an apron from Mexico," says Rodriguez.
And yet the men couldn't stop heaping accolades on the girl from Mexico, who left that country -- and a not-so-nice ex-husband -- to find a better life in Denver. "Those men -- they told me that it was the best meal they'd ever had, that they could really feel the love in the food," recalls Rodriguez, who never wears a chef's coat. "We should be known for how we cook -- not because of what we wear. Plus, the kitchen is just too damn hot for a chef's jacket."
A single mom with three kids, Rodriguez grew up on a farm in Chihuahua, butchering her own animals and cooking her heart out, learning the culinary ropes from her father, who never missed an opportunity to cook. "My dad did most of the cooking, and on Friday night -- that was family dinner night -- we'd have carne asada, tortillas that we made from scratch, cheese that my mother made, and fresh-baked bread," she remembers. "It was wonderful."
And soon, cooking turned into a concrete pastime for Rodriguez. "I was studying computers in college, but I wanted to do something on the side. I wanted a hobby, and I wanted to cook for my friends and family, so I went to pastry school," she says. And then she stuffed her suitcase and headed for Denver, to escape a souring relationship and be closer to her father's family. Her first job here was doing dish duty at Panzano, which lasted all of a week. "Ben Davis, who was the opening chef of Panzano, thought I could do more, so he started teaching me how to make fresh pastas, and then I worked in the bakery as the assistant pastry chef," remembers Rodriguez. When the head pastry chef got kicked to the pavement, Rodriguez got the job. And after Davis left the line and Jennifer Jasinski took his place, Rodriguez moved up yet again, becoming Jasinski's sous chef. She stayed at Panzano for three years, until Jasinski opened Rioja with Beth Gruitch. (Jasinski and Gruitch later added Bistro Vendȏme and Euclid Hall to their empire.)