Denver chef named best restaurateur in the nation by James Beard

Two Colorado chefs and restaurateurs struck gold at the “Oscars” of the food industry on Monday, taking home top awards from the James Beard Foundation.

Chef Kelly Whitaker and partner, Erika Whitaker, co-founders of Id Est Hospitality Group, earned the award for Outstanding Restaurateur among five finalists from around the country. Id Est boasts award-winning restaurants like Michelin-starred The Wolf’s Tailor and BRUTØ in Denver and Basta in Boulder, as well as the newish Hey Kiddo in Denver.

Matt Vawter, owner of Rootstalk in Breckenridge, won the title for Best Chef in the Mountain Region — which includes Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming — out of five finalists, including Denver’s chef Penelope Wong, co-owner of Yuan Wonton in Park Hill.

Owner Kelly Whitaker is pictured at The Wolf’s Tailor on Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post)

“What a moment, holy crap…,” Erica Whitaker said in her acceptance speech. “When we founded Id Est, our daughter was a year old, and now we’re just 10 days shy of her 16th birthday, and she’s here tonight…”

“…We own seven restaurants, but we also have engaged in so many different conversations around our food supply systems and been food advocates,” Kelly Whitaker added. “All these things are possible: to have restaurants, to have a family and to get involved.

“This year alone, we’ve contracted and built with farmers over 200 acres of regenerative land, we’re growing grains and milling flour. This isn’t just applicable to our tasting-menu restaurants, it’s applicable to a pizza or a sandwich,” he continued.

Kelly Whitaker was previously nominated as a 2020 James Beard Award semifinalist for Best Mountain Chef for Wolf’s Tailor and was also an Outstanding Restaurateur semifinalist in 2023.  “We don’t particularly chase these awards, but we definitely chase the platform this brings, and for that, we know that this is a responsibility,” he said. “I have more sense of fight now more than ever.”

Vawter, in his speech, thanked the James Beard Foundation for “recognizing what we do in our small little mountain community in Breckenridge. I started cooking when I was 14 years old to help my parents pay rent, and I never looked back.”

After working with Denver restaurateur Alex Seidel — another highly decorated James Beard award winner — at Fruition and Mercantile Dining & Provision, Vawter opened Rootstalk in late 2020 in a remodeled home from the 1800s. The restaurant, at 207 N. Main St., focuses on providing “elevated, everyday dining” with seasonal ingredients from local farmers and ranchers, homemade pasta, and a seven-course tasting menu.

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“To our producers and our farmers, we get to highlight your products on the plate and in the restaurant, and it makes our lives really easy,” Vawter continued in his speech. “To my partners, Patrick and Cameron who are in the audience, you believed in me when you said let’s open a restaurant in the pandemic, you picked up your lives and moved. You practice what you preach, you work to get better every day and our restaurant wouldn’t exist without you…”

Roasted bone marrow brulee with beef tartare, grilled sourdough and radish salad at Rootstalk on Feb. 28, 2023, in Breckenridge. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

When the James Beard Foundation announced semifinalists in January, Colorado claimed 13 nominations, as it has for the last two years, including a few in nationally competitive categories such as outstanding restaurateur, outstanding chef and best new restaurant.

Last year, Colorado came up empty-handed in all categories at the prestigious awards. Only one finalist, chef Michael Diaz de Leon formerly of Whitaker’s BRUTØ, was in the running for the Best Chef in the Mountain Region.

Chef Caroline Glover, owner of Annette and Traveling Mercies in Stanley Marketplace, was the last local James Beard Award winner when she took home the Best Chef in the Mountain Region title in 2022.

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