Thirty years ago, Elise Wiggins wanted to open her own restaurant. She had finished a second year of college in her native Louisiana, she was living in and often cooking for her sorority, and one of the sisters had ties to a new family business. I could be the chef, the then 19-year-old Wiggins called, excited, to tell her parents. They responded with a plan: Pack your things, come home now, and we’ll talk about culinary school. Once there, according to Elise, mom and dad pulled a “sneaky sneak” on their daughter. They told her she would re-enroll in a local college, get a job, earn her degree, and then think about cooking for a living.
“I was trapped,” Wiggins says now from inside her comfortable 9-month-old restaurant Cattivella in Stapleton’s Eastbridge development. “I sold all my furniture, I didn’t have a job, and now I was stuck with these guys. I was so mad at them.” At 48, the chef and first-time restaurateur looks back on this early career setback laughing and with a devious smile. Business is spot-on at Cattivella (translation: naughty girl in Italian), where Wiggins closely runs the kitchen and the financials, supporting 32 employees — “I claim to have 32 children, which is the number of my staff.” She lives in the neighborhood and just this month married her partner Rachel Chaparro.
At Cattivella Wiggins cooks for the community around her. “Sometimes it’s not about you,” she says of creating a food menu based on her customers’ tastes as much as her own. Wiggins keeps her family, friends, neighbors, and fans from her 12-year run at Panzano coming back to Stapleton for approachable and addictive mushroom truffle pizzas, more complicated stuffed rabbit specials, and gentle pushes forward with batsoa Italian pig’s (feet) trotters. Looking back, Wiggins says she’s glad now that she didn’t jump on that first business offer. “I’m not in my 20s opening up a restaurant, going, ‘How do I do this?’ I really have the experience to make me successful.”
Wiggins grew up a hands-on and adventurous eater. Her mother, Honor, was raised in the military, based in countries from Japan to Germany and spending summers in a holiday house kitchen on Lake Como. Later, “momma” would spread pictures on the dining room table for Elise and her older sister to see Northern Italy while eating their first bowls of carbonara. Wiggins’ father, Ed, is from the South and raised his girls frogging, catching crawfish, and hunting rabbits in West Monroe, Louisiana. They picked figs from their fruit trees in late summer and preserved them in sweet sorghum.
Wiggins remembers helping her mom bake chocolate chip cookies, sticking her hands in the cookie dough, watching her dad’s and sister’s faces once the treats had been pulled out hot from the oven. “It clicked with me,” she says. “You make really good food, you make people happy.” It was the mid 1970s. She started watching Julia Child on the family’s Trinitron and shooting game with her father. She began with squirrels and rabbits, and one day asked him if she could shoot a blackbird. Ed allowed it. “She needed to understand that we do not waste any life,” he recalls. “We cleaned that blackbird, we took it home, and she was there for every step of the way. She was in there for every aspect ... and she ate her half of it.” (Mom and big sister opted out of a blackbird dinner.)
Ed and Honor Wiggins now come to Colorado to attend their daughter’s restaurant dinners as well as her cooking classes. Ed says he can’t wait to reproduce a complicated recipe he’s learned from Elise. “She is probably more of an influence on us now than we ever were on her,” he says of Wiggins’ cooking, pointing to her preparation of game, in particular. The winter menu at Cattivella is marked by wild boar sausage and potato gnocchi with rabbit, as well as comforting lamb ragu and baked pasticcio with meatballs.
Cattivella executive sous chef Zuri Resendiz began working with Wiggins at Denver’s classic Italian lunchroom Panzano in 2012. He quickly progressed from line cook to sous chef; he says it wasn’t a question when she asked him a few years later to join her in starting a new concept. “Everybody follows her,” Resendiz says. “She’s really professional in what she does, but at the same time teaching you in the right way. After that, she will let you fly by yourself. She likes to share all her knowledge.” For five years while living in Texas, finishing her degree, and then planning for culinary school, Wiggins learned about restaurant kitchens while working in an acclaimed Dallas-area dining room under an old-school Italian chef. He fostered a now newsworthy type of work environment that she’s now able to reflect on.
After the detour in Dallas in her early 20s, Wiggins came to Colorado on a whim. She had always wanted to vacation here, and she found the one culinary school open at the time in Denver (then the Culinary Institute of Art, now the Art Institute of Colorado) and was finally able to attend it. She doesn’t mind the years of college before culinary school, the decades working for other people, time later spent learning the financial side of the business as well as the culinary. Now running her own restaurant, chatting easily with every customer, it’s clear that Wiggins is a mature chef, at home in herself and her profession. “She is one of the very few persons we know that is self-actualized,” Honor Wiggins says. “That doesn’t come along very often. All of us struggle to figure out what we’re going to do in life. And she truly has a passion for what she does.”
For Resendiz, who was raised in Mexico City by a single mother and discovered at a young age that women are the “real chefs” in Mexico (cooking three different meals every day according to their husbands’ budgets), he says he learned early on to “respect everybody” in the kitchen. He looks up to Elise now: “You know, you stay where you feel comfortable,” he says of his six years working with her. “Being with chef Elise is making me happy every single day.”
Wiggins, Resendiz, and the team plan to open more restaurants in the future. “Every time we get together and we talk about food, our imaginations just fly,” Resendiz says about the possibilities, which could include a Latin concept based on his heritage and Wiggins’ year of travels around Mexico and Central America, as well as time spent cooking in Puerto Rico. She is taking her time, though, thinking about as many as five restaurants in the family but making sure to do them right. Wiggins wants to be just as involved in every project moving forward, present in the restaurant and definitely still cooking: “Kudos to all these guys making a lot of money opening a lot of places,” she says. “That’s not what’s important to me.”