Chef Elise Wiggins
Downtown Denver is full of life on a Friday afternoon. On the corner of 17th and Champa sits the Hotel Monaco. Tourists enter and exit, starting and ending their vacations. For me, a permanent resident, my destination is Panzano. Attached to the aforementioned Hotel Monaco, Panzano is led by Executive Chef Elise Wiggins.
Buttery midday sunlight filters in from the street as I grab a chair and get settled. The ambiance is warm, calm and bright as Elise postpones her kitchen duties to sit down for our interview.
Born and raised in Louisiana, Wiggins became interested in culinary pursuits “right out of the womb.” She spent her childhood and teenage years perfecting recipes a la Julia Child and dreaming of a future in the culinary industry. After high school, she took the university route, and began culinary school at the Art Institute of Denver.
Wiggins has been a Panzano staple for 15 years. When asked about the difficulties of excelling as a woman in a male dominated industry, she shrugs. “I feel that the restaurant culture has moved past thinking that there is a difference between working for a male chef versus a female chef. It’s more about how good you are and how you treat your team [which] has nothing to do with your [gender].”
Her personable nature and confidence surrounding her craft is evident even to a cooking outsider like myself. As our conversation progresses from lifestyle to lunch, the excitement on Elise’s face is palpable.
The dish she is about to prepare has a story all of its own. Today she is cooking Pastiche, a dish enjoyed by Catherine di Medici in the 1500s. Though it has changed in some respects, the heart and soul of Pastiche is still intact.
During the lifetime of Catherine di Medici, some 500 years ago, meals were cooked for the masses. For a castle dinner, one needed to cook for over 100 guests. This involved cauldrons of ingredients and precision in regards to planning. Of course, a castle dinner without a show isn’t a castle dinner at all. Elise explains to me that birds (yes, live birds) were placed into the upper layer of crust and, upon entering the castle dining hall, were allowed to emerge and fly away.
Due to the unclean nature of live fowl as a part of an evening meal, the upper layer of crust was entirely removed from the Pastiche. Of course, today there are no birds added (phew) and thus all crust is edible. However, Elise assures me, it is still a meal fit for royalty.
The lunch hour rolls on and as a steady stream of guests make their way to tables, Elise excuses herself from our interview to return to the kitchen. She concludes our chat, telling me to enjoy my “Queen for a Day” epitaph that comes with indulging in the Pastiche.
As I wrap up lunch, I think to myself how Elise Wiggins’ bright, bold personality is matched only by her talent and sheer love for all things cooking. Both Elise and her culinary pursuits are so authentic and full of passion that, when combined, produce magical (and tasty) results.
After all, the alternative is for the birds.