Life should be walked without fear. So they say those who, it would seem, have not felt it or have hardly felt the first few glimpses of it only to be rescued by circumstance or chance. H. P. Lovecraft once said that “The oldest and most powerful emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and most powerful kind of fear is the fear of the unknown.” That is from where many have drawn upon to create our nightmares. Others, wiser and more courageous, have used it to make history. Because the fear of the unknown will remain there unless we keep walking. In the end, the more you know, the less fear the future can bring. That’s the lesson I learned when I walked through the doors of Work and Class several years ago and talked for the first time with Dana Rodriguez, a Chef who was most frightened by not moving and whom no one now seems able to stop.
Her family fled Juarez because of cartel violence and settled in Monterrey. But those were different times and women in Mexico got married young and became mothers right away. And as her marriage began to fall apart, Dana remembered a vacation in Denver when she saw that there were jobs available in many restaurants. So she took her three daughters, the oldest 2 years old, the youngest just a few months old, headed to Denver and never looked back.“I showed up at Casa Bonita and asked for a job. It was the natural thing to do. A Mexican food restaurant and I had been making tortillas since I was a little girl,” she told me at a table at Work and Class, one of the restaurants she owns in Denver, a place that has become her way of celebrating those who worked hard to get to where they are. Today Dana is a renowned name in the culinary industry not only in Colorado, but in the entire United States. But first, she was just a dishwasher.
She ended up finding a job at Panzano, one of Denver’s most exciting Italian restaurants, where Jennifer Jasinski watched her transition from the sink to the kitchen line, learning the ropes in a language she didn’t even fully understood, let alone speak. Jasinski knew she had a diamond in the rough and took her under her wing. Three times she had to offer her the position of Sous-Chef before Dana Rodriguez would accept. “I wasn’t ready. I still had a lot of learning to do,” but when she decided to take over, that’s when La Loca, as she’s known to the culinary industry, was born.Eventually, Jasinski left Panzano and with her the General Manager Beth Gurich, a close friend of Rodriguez and whom I was left eager to meet in order to learn stories from the kitchen that for years she experienced working next to Dana in a city that, if anything, has a culinary diversity that has been iconic in the U.S. for many years. So, their next step seemed natural in part, and one of Dana’s biggest risks. Jasinski and Gurich opened Rioja in 2004. And Dana didn’t want to be left out of the equation. But now not just as an employee, but as co-owner of the place.
“I’ve been through Mediterranean cuisine like Rioja to French cuisine at Bistrot Vendôme because there are always new things to learn.” Again, the unknown stops being scary when it stops being unknown. But as Dana Rodriguez keeps on talking, her stories reveal much more than just her sense of humor, which makes the table we are at resonate with laughter. They show a woman who fights not only for her daughters, but for her right to be whoever she wants to be, without worrying about the past, but rather for what she is planning for the future. Moreover, she is a woman who does not forget where she comes from or who helped her to get where she is today.Thus in 2013 she became the Executive Chef and partner of Work and Class, alongside Tony Maciag, her first Denver ally and friend since the Panzano years. Two completely different people. One born and raised on a farm in Chihuahua, fleeing the violence of Juarez and rebuilding her life in Denver, the other a Detroit native looking to leave his shyness behind through the hospitality industry. More than 25 years after meeting and with several restaurants together, one could say the friendship paid off.
Dana has been nominated several times for the James Beard Foundation Award in several categories. This year, in fact, after the pause caused by the pandemic, the awards ceremony is back and, with it, so is Dana. Nominated in the Best Chef: Mountain category, I can picture Dana looking completely at ease, checking the finishing details of the day to day at Work and Class before boarding a plane to Chicago to attend the ceremony. But, more than that, I picture her with her head full of ideas for a new project she has in the works.I was lucky enough to see Dana a few weeks ago at an event in Mexico called Biennial of the Americas, an initiative created in Denver to connect leaders across the Americas that can share a community and the potential to become change-makers. Dana reached out to us to recommend a place where she could host the closing dinner of the Biennial and after deciding that Paxia was the only viable option for a 90+ person gathering at which Dana would pour her new mezcal and tequila project “Doña Loca”, we sat down at the table to have a laugh and promise each other that we wouldn’t let so much time pass between encounters. I asked her about Work and Class, SuperMegaBien and new projects. As I told you, Dana Rodriguez has always looked forward, but I’m the one who can’t help but smile at the irony of the past that is about to happen.
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When Dana arrived into Denver more than 25 years ago, you may recall that she asked for a job at Casa Bonita, one of the city’s iconic venues and one that has been famous not for its food, but for its vibe and is a crowd favorite. But her first job was at Panzano. Why? “Well, I was denied the job at Casa Bonita. They told me I wasn’t qualified to work in a Mexican restaurant,” she remembers and lets out a laugh.Casa Bonita shut down in March 2020 because of the pandemic. And as famous as the space may have been, it was one of the places that didn’t survive the ravages of a months-long shuttered economy and Colorado COVID strict rules. By September the website was gone, and in April of 2021 Casa Bonita officially filed for Chapter 11.Enter Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Yes… ‘that’ Trey Parker and ‘that’ Matt Stone. The creators of The Book of Mormon or, if you’re looking for something easier to spot, South Park. In fact, Casa Bonita has appeared in several episodes of the animated series and even the latest South Park videogame. Stone and Parker have both stated that they have always been fond of Casa Bonita because of memories growing up in the Denver suburbs. In September 2021, a year after Casa Bonita’s website disappeared, the duo announced their decision to purchase the 40+ year old venue. After a couple of months of negotiations and legal formalities, on November 4th the sale was approved by a judge and 13 days later they hired Casa Bonita’s first employee under the new management: Executive Chef Dana Rodriguez.
I can’t help but think of women I admire, who broke that threshold of fear that would paralyze others. Today, as I look forward to the James Beard Foundation awards dinner where I hope to see Dana walk the stage to receive her award, I can’t get a quote from Rosa Parks out of my mind: “I have learned over the years that when you are determined, it diminishes fear; knowing what to do eliminates fear.”. Boy, did Dana know the right thing to do. What intrigues me is what follows. Because, to quote a typical Mexican phrase, la Loca doesn’t stop. And for that, those of us who appreciate food and stories can only be thankful.