Chef Kelly Whitaker, owner of acclaimed restaurants Basta, in Boulder, and The Wolf’s Tailor, in Denver, is a devotee of wood-fired and charcoal cooking. He also has become a proponent of locally grown heritage grain, which is incorporated into his menus.

By Kristen Browning-Blas | Photo: Id Est Hospitality Group

Chef Kelly Whitaker has a lot to say, but his life story takes shape on the plate, through delicate bread made from heritage wheat, tender miso-marinated chicken meatballs skewered spiedini-style, prawns spiked with togarashi and fennel, and curly mafaldine pasta ribbons with locally raised lamb.

Don’t even try to give this food a label.

“Everyone’s like, ‘You’re fusion food,’ and I’m like, ‘No I’m not.’ It’s just me, my story,” said Whitaker, while recently watching dinner preparations at The Wolf’s Tailor, his new restaurant in north Denver. “When we step out with a project, so much of it is about experience. So I decided we’d put us on a plate, put our travels on a plate.”

His travels have taken him from Duncan, Oklahoma, through the Colorado Rockies, to the West Coast, and across Europe and Asia. Whitaker found his way to Colorado State University and graduated in 2003 with a degree in hospitality management.

While in college, he worked in local kitchens, often washing dishes, and had a formative experience working at Pulcinella Ristorante in Fort Collins, a high-end Italian restaurant owned by chef Antonio Race. There, he began to foresee a career in the food world.

“I was learning the operational stuff at school. But at night, I was so drawn into the back of the house, to the food,” said Whitaker, reflecting on a journey that has led to accolades from Eater, Chef’s Collaborative, and the James Beard Foundation.

A study abroad program took him to the Hotel Institute Montreux in Switzerland. While in Europe, he traveled around southern Italy with a chef from Pulcinella. Whitaker returned to Italy after graduation and worked for room and board at Il Maestrale, a restaurant on Procida, an island off the coast of Naples.

The smoke from that wood-fired oven still lingers in Whitaker’s kitchens at The Wolf’s Tailor, where the chefs use Japanese binchotan charcoal, and Basta in Boulder, where oak feeds the hearth.

“He’s been quietly perfecting wood-fired food for the last decade, before it popped up everywhere in Denver,” said Josie Sexton, a food reporter for The Denver Post. “Kelly’s work is one of the big reasons people talk about Colorado now as a dining destination.”

For 10 years, Whitaker’s Id Est Hospitality Group has consulted on projects in Metro Denver, ranging from Stem Ciders’ Acreage Ciderhouse and Eatery in RiNo to the University of Denver’s Community Commons. This year, the partners, including his wife, Erika Whitaker (also a CSU alum), opened Bruto and BOH in Free Market, part of the Dairy Block in LoDo, and Dry Storage, a bakery café next to Basta in north Boulder.

“Kelly has been a great contributor to the Denver-Boulder restaurant business. He has great restaurants, and I love going to them,” said Bobby Stuckey, co-owner of Frasca, Pizzeria Locale, and Tavernetta, and a James Beard award-winner himself. “If you’re in the restaurant biz, you are following some sort of passion he’s good at executing on his creative juices.”

At 42, Whitaker has found outlets for those creative juices through his restaurants and now is rising to another role as an advocate for sustainability. He has served on the culinary task force for Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, which helped persuade Walmart to change its buying practices to ensure more sustainably and ethically sourced shrimp.

In 2016, Whitaker co-founded Noble Grain Alliance, a nonprofit that promotes locally grown heritage grain varieties; its work supports and connects links in the “grain chain,” from farmer to consumer. The effort reflects Whitaker’s interest in translating hospitality to meet broad contemporary needs.

As Whitaker discussed his work, it was nearly 5 p.m., and evening service approached at The Wolf’s Tailor. A hush came over the restaurant as savory aromas wafted from the kitchen, and the staff gathered to review ingredients and wines for the night’s meal.

“There’s something about 5:30,” Whitaker said. “Everyone is focused. Then at 5:50, all the blinds come up, and it’s like, ‘Boom!’ I love it.”