Dana Rodriguez Is One Of Denver's Best Chefs

Superstar Dana Rodriguez of Denver's Work & Class on finding her inner Loca

Luck landed Dana Rodriguez—then a 22-year-old mother of three from Juárez, Mexico—an entry-level gig at Denver, Colorado, restaurant Panzano in 1998. Talent and diligence helped her parlay that luck into a career under James Beard Award–winning chef Jennifer Jasinski and Jasinski's partner, Beth Gruitch, first at Panzano, located in a Kimpton hotel, and then at Jasinski and Gruitch's own restaurants. It took hard-earned self-confidence, however, to get Rodriguez where she is today, as chef and co-owner of the acclaimed Mexican-Southern destination Work & Class and its much-anticipated follow-up, Super Mega Bien. We ask Loca—as she's affectionately known—for her story.

On starting out and her big break:

"I was going through a troubled marriage and was just in Denver for a little vacation. I saw this sign at Panzano that they were hiring. I was like, well, I don't know how to do anything, so I'm going to apply as a dishwasher. If they say yes, I stay; if not, I'm going back to Mexico. The chef at the time, Ben Davis, asks me, 'Do you speak English?' I say, 'I know the numbers and the ABC's.' He says, 'OK, I guess you're hired.'

"Three weeks in, he says, 'I need you to learn prep. You're a hard worker, and if I teach you, you will get it really quick.' Pretty soon, I'm doing some chop chop, but I was having a hard time with ingredients. When he'd say, 'Go get truffles; go get prosciutto,' I was like, 'I have no clue what you're talking about.' So I started putting the prep list in Spanish, so I could learn."

On Jasinski's mentorship:

"Jen speaks Spanish, so she could communicate with me better. So I started learning faster. And she's a great teacher. She doesn't yell if you screw up, 'What the fuck are you doing? This is coming out of your paycheck!' She takes the time to teach you everything, but she never stopped me from what I was doing, [because] the way that you learn is by fucking up.

"I worked with so many male chefs who were super nice to me and gave me opportunities, too. But the staff—that was the hard part. When Jen pushed me to be a sous-chef, I said no three times. First, it was my language; I wasn't confident in an open kitchen. But also, at that time, there weren't a lot of women in charge, which makes a big difference, because most of the kitchens had guys who didn't like a woman telling them what to do. And there weren't any Latinas in charge."

On earning respect—and her nickname, Loca:

"There was this manager at Panzano who every night when I ran the kitchen would say, 'Speak English; I don't understand you!' And, you know, I'm a pretty tough woman. But at the time, I was really head down, quiet, like a good girl, and I'd go home and I'd cry every freaking day. Then one day, I thought, 'Well, I love what I do. This is gonna be my future.' And I was just over him. It was a Saturday night, really busy, and he screams at me, 'I don't understand what you're talking about; speak English!' And I just look at him and say, 'Fuck you. Do you understand this?' He turns around, and he's all red. He says, 'You're a fucking loca woman,' and I say, 'Yes, I am!'

"But I'm not gonna fight with the guys to prove to them I'm their boss. When they see that you can do the job that they do, you don't need to—they know who you are, and they respect you."