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Posted: May 01, 2010

Executive edge: Jennifer Jasinski

Chef and business partner aim for trifecta with Larimer Square restaurant

Lynn Bronikowski

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As Executive Chef Jennifer Jasinski prepares for the biggest dining day of the year - Mother's Day - she's thinking about her own mom, who inspired her to pursue her passion, take risks and open restaurants - even amid an economic downturn.

"My mom is a businessperson - vice president of Santa Barbara Bank & Trust," said Jasinski, 41, a native of Santa Barbara, Calif., who today is owner and executive chef of Larimer Square dining destinations - Rioja, Bistro Vendôme and soon-to-open Euclid Hall Bar and Kitchen. "When I was a kid, she was a microbiologist, a single mom of three, so I know I got my drive from her. Plus, I like to work and am a little crazy, too, which helps in this business."

In July, Jasinski and her business partner, Beth Gruitch, are opening Euclid Hall Bar and Kitchen, specializing in innovative pub food, in the 1883 building that once housed Soapy Smith's bar.
"It's a great creative outlet for us," said Gruitch, 40, who hired Jasinski 10 years ago when she was general manager of Panzano restaurant. They became business partners and ultimately friends who would open restaurants of their own. "It gives us an opportunity to extend beyond the fine-dining realm into something more playful."

Sure, it's a risk to open a restaurant amid a flat economy, but Jasinski and Gruitch are undaunted.

"It's an excellent location, so when opportunities like this come up, you'd be stupid not to take them," said Jasinski, who moved to Denver in 2000 following top chef stints with Wolfgang Puck, whom she calls her mentor and role model. "People are still dining out. We feel good about our product, and there is a need for a creative tavern concept. While Rioja is my dream restaurant, Euclid Hall will be fun."

Both partners are gratified their restaurants create jobs - employing 100 at Rioja and Bistro and 60 more once Euclid Hall opens.

"I feel responsible for everybody who works for me; these people who work for us depend on us so that's why it's not OK to be lackadaisical," Jasinski said. "I'm not a micro-manager, but our reputations are on the line, and I can't stand mediocrity, so we put a lot of trust in the people who work for us."

While Jasinski found her passion for cooking growing up as a latchkey kid and preparing meals for her family, Colorado Springs native Gruitch calls herself "a reluctant cook."
"My great grandparents and parents were in the industry off-and-on, so a little of it is in my blood," Gruitch said. "I was a host at the Whale Inn at age 15 and always knew I would be in the business but thought I'd go up the corporate ladder."

When she met Jasinski, the corporate-ladder route vanished and the dream of running restaurants took off.

"The partnership absolutely works, 
and that isn't always the case in this business where partnerships can be disastrous," Gruitch said. "But we started out as a business relationship and then became friends."

In addition to opening a third restaurant, Jasinski is publishing a cookbook, "The Perfect Bite," featuring 83 recipes.

"It's something I'd been wanting to do for a long time," she said. "It was the most stressful thing I've done lately because it wasn't just cooking but writing and editing. Cooking I can handle, but I wanted to take a personal approach to the book, so that was a little more stressful."

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Lynn Bronikowski is a freelance writer in Denver.

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