The series premier of Bravo's Around the World in 80 Plates is fast approaching (May 9th), and Denver's Jenna Johansen will be globetrotting on the show with 11 other chefs, learning local customs, cultures, and cuisines "in a gauntlet of culinary challenges." Johansen isn't a stranger to travel, as she's spent a number of years cooking in and out of Colorado. It all started for her in high school, when she got her first baking job at age fourteen. After completing her Restaurant and Resort Management degree at Colorado State University in Ft. Collins, Johansen opened The Four Seasons in Disney World, and eventually moved back to Colorado to study at Johnson & Wales in Vail. Hungry for more experience, she moved to Tuscany to expand her knowledge of Italian cuisine, returning to Colorado after a year of emersion. After time on the line at Ventura Grille in Greenwood Village and Zino Ristorante in Edwards, Johansen eventually opened Dish in Edwards as executive chef and co-owner. In the following interview, Johansen chats about signing on with Bravo, her decision to leave Vail for Denver and what's on the horizon.
How were you approached to go on Around the World in 80 Plates? What appealed to you about going on TV? They called me to see if I was interested. It is a pretty amazing opportunity to have a game set before you, in which you have no idea what it will demand of you, travel around the world — if you manage to pass through each challenge — and make delicious food with other chefs. Everyone is the same only in that we all have a unique personality, cook well, enjoy traveling around the world and like the competitive game. I don't know of any other experience that would afford the same once in a lifetime opportunities. So, why not?
Would you say this show more extreme than Top Chef? Was a sense of adventure and/or athletic ability required? This is a different game than Top Chef. There is a new kitchen in every country. The winner, for example, had to cook in at least 10 different kitchens in different countries. Some chefs speak multiple languages and some only speak English. That certainly made a difference in each challenge. There is a lot of adventure. When we started in London, we saw right away that there was a lot of running. We would have brought different shoes if we knew we would have to run so much. All chefs are in shape — for a long night on the line. None of us came to the show thinking we would be running all over the world.
What challenges did you encounter during filming? I sprained both my ankles, and we all dealt with the issues you encounter on long trips — colds, sinus infections, food poisoning — you know, the usual. Then you can add the dynamic of 12 people who run their own kitchens at home, and are all used to being the boss, and put them on a team to work together. The name of the game is challenge in almost every aspect.
Bravo is known for presenting some insane cooking challenges, and we're sure this show isn't any different. What's in store? You won't even believe it. I am so excited to watch this show. Everyone stands to learn a thing or two by watching. We cooked for the locals, so we were judged by the people who eat and cook this food every single day. They are tough critics.
Tell us about the decision to leave Edwards and move to Denver. I was ready to leave my day to day life in the mountains. I really love the Vail Valley for all that it offers, and I loved cooking in my kitchen at Dish, but I am hungry for a little Denver city life right now. It was time for me to be in the same town as my fiancée and my family, and cook up some new opportunities.
Since you left Dish and finished filming, what's been your kitchen involvement? Oh, I'm still cooking all the time. I'm teaching cooking classes, consulting restaurants, hosting private events and personal cheffing. Publically, I'm a member of FIVE, so I cook at those events every month. I'm really excited about my first pop-ups this summer at Studio F on May 10, 11 and 12, the week the show premieres. Global flavors are the inspiration for these dinners. They're a labor of love and a real showcase of my food, so they're very personal and fun for me.
You're engaged to Mark DeNittis, and he's hinted that you have your own project in the works with Il Mondo Vecchio Artisan Food. Can you tell us more about that? We are working on a line of amazing delicious goodies that really taste like what we enjoyed while living in Italy. Keep your eyes peeled for more.
Tell us about your blog. What's your mission with that? How do you and DeNittis go about creating content? I love our blog. We called it The Last Thing We Ate because we really wanted it to just be about what is delicious, interesting and relevant for us at any particular time. People ask us all kinds of questions about recipes, meat, butchery, salumi, food, cooking, where we like to eat, traveling and tips for the kitchen. This blog really gives us a home to talk about that and connect with people. We are just having fun with it right now, and hopefully our readers learn a little something new. Maybe we can make money on it someday, but right now it is a passion project and something great for Mark and I to do together.
What's next for you? I am going month by month. There is still a lot on my plate. There are so many events I can barely keep them straight. This month, the premiere of Around the World in 80 Plates and the Studio F pop-up dinner. You'll find me all over this summer, from Aspen Food & Wine, to the Frisco BBQ Festival, to random pop-ups and cooking classes. I'm even cooking at the James Beard House in September. Who knows, I may end up in a kitchen around Denver, open my own place or land my own TV show.
Around the World in 80 Plates debuts Wednesday, May 9th.