The mischievous chef
Elise Wiggins learned to butcher from a famous Italian master chef, just a few years ago in the Tuscany village of Panzano.
She was already executive chef at Panzano’s in Denver, in the prime of a 12-year run when a less inquisitive soul may have been content to focus on preparing the meat as supplied. Not Wiggins, who says the weeks of training in 2012 “turned upside down” the way she views cuts of meat.
That only begins to explain why everyone wants to experience what Denver’s 2017 Chef of the Year brings to the table. That’s at her own Italian eatery, Cattivella, just opened last year as a reflection of her rising culinary force.
It all began with her mother, Honor Wiggins, who proved many times that good food brings people joy. In that tradition, Chef Elise wants to make customers feel relaxed in her restaurant, as they might be welcomed into a happy home.
“To me, you don’t have to go to a steakhouse and get all dressed up to enjoy a really good steak and feel comfortable,” she says.
It works out because Wiggins understands how a really good steak starts. She’s naturally a mix of the serious and playful, but cuts are always strategic when the beef reaches her knife.
The world-renowned chef who elevated her technique, Dario Cecchini, is an eighth-generation butcher with a flair for precise cutting and a respect for each animal that aims to make use of all the meat.
“People are always asking me about my beef. They love it so much they ask me where it’s from,” Wiggins says. “Steaks are always steaks and sell really well, but I like the challenge of doing something that’s lesser known and opening people’s eyes about it.”
To excel in that goal, she had to dive deep into another culture’s philosophy.
“The whole use of the animal was really important to me,” she says. “I had the skills I learned here, but Italians are just known for using every single thing. I wanted to see what they did that would be different.”
Beef shank is widely used as a ground product there. “I never would have thought of using the shank to make a burger,” Wiggins says. “Dario made me understand there’s more than one way to skin a cat.”
Or a cow.
In Italy, restaurants cook burgers slower so there’s time for the ground tendons to melt and create an enjoyable texture, she explains. Other beef cuts more utilized by Italians include the neck, cheek and tongue.
With so many Italian restaurants everywhere, Wiggins was determined to set her efforts apart, starting with the name, Cattivella, Italian for “mischievous young girl.”
“It’s perfect for me, because ever since I was a little girl I was mischievous in an inquisitive kind of way,” she says.
Between the culture’s hospitality and comfort foods, the chef considers her favorite cuisine “the world’s favorite cuisine.” But how can you make Louisiana roots dating to 1740 portray Italian style in Colorado?
The answer goes back to Honor again.
Honor Wiggins spent summers in Italy and brought back stories and meals to share.
“She would go into the kitchens of all of the places she would stay, and they’d have a chef there cooking,” Chef Elise says. “And she would just watch how they would cook, so she learned these dishes.”
When making a traditional dish like carbonara, applying what she learned from the Italians, her mother liked to provide a rich context.
“She laid down photos of her in Italy, which is beautiful, and told me the story of carbonara,” Wiggins says. “I was hooked ever since. I loved the stories, the history and everything behind it.”
Cattivella’s atmosphere includes an open kitchen and wood-fire grill with contemporary eating and patio areas. Seeing their food made, diners experience a taste of what the Italians offer the owner and chef when she travels to Italy.
“They literally invite me into their kitchen if I go in their restaurant and I ask them a question about something,” she says. “And I always feel like I’m home, like I’ve known them.”
Since soaking up the Italian side, Wiggins took a deeper dive into U.S. beef production. She thinks about the broader impact of her choices on the environment and ranchers who work to produce their best.
“I think it’s brilliant that they just really pay attention to the planning and outcome of their mixing (genetics),” she says. “I love to tell the story to people because a lot of our consumers just don’t know the depth of intentionality that goes into the Certified Angus Beef (CAB) brand.”
There’s one CAB cut in particular that Wiggins says she’d be happy to prepare and eat the rest of her days.
“I’ve got this big, new, beautiful, sexy wood-fire grill that’s nine feet long, and it has these two red flywheels at the end,” she begins. “We do this CAB prime rib roast bone-in. And we rotisserie that baby for hours on a low heat, but it gets that kiss of smoke. Let me tell you, it is life changing.”
Hearing the chef speak of the flavor and texture shows her passion for a career that shines through her food.
“It’s kind of like this cross between smoking something to the point where it’s tender,” she continues, “but it doesn’t get a whole lot of smoke because it’s open—it’s not like barbecue—and it gets the dry kiss of the flames, so it caramelizes the outside. But the texture is like butter.”
Chef Elise takes pride in those meal experiences that linger with guests at Cattivella.
“The food has to haunt people,” she says.
Customer reactions reinforce those mouth-watering descriptions.
“People are just, eyes rolling back in their heads,” she says. “It’s that good.”