Today, I welcome Sheila Lucero, the Big Red F Culinary Director. This restaurant entity has been serving Colorado’s Front Range foodies and others since 1994. Today, this consortium of eateries includes Lola, Westend Tavern, Centro Mexican Kitchen, The Post Brewing Co., Jax fish House, and Zolo Grill.
After being raised in Colorado, Chef Sheila attended Florida International University and then received her culinary training at the Colorado Art Institute. Chef Sheila started her career at Jax Fish House in Denver and has worked in various positions within the Big Red F brand. Restaurant goers as well as the media have consistently acknowledged her culinary skills and Congress has listened to her concerns about the food industry.
When did your passion for food begin?
I don’t really have an ‘aha’ moment. I always had an appreciation for food from my family, especially my dad. It really struck a chord when I started working in restaurants. When I first started in the industry, I realized the environment reminded me of playing soccer: the camaraderie, the frenetic pace, the teamwork. It really takes a team to get awesome food out and to make people happy. It all clicked. This is what I wanted to do.
How did culinary school shape your philosophy as a chef?
It gave me a lot of the foundational skills and theory that I needed. Not everyone needs culinary school but for me it was a great foundational platform to build my skill set and knowledge.
Did you encounter any difficulties entering a career path dominated by men?
While training to become a chef, can you single out any mentors who positively affected your understanding of the restaurant industry?
Dave Query (founder of Big Red F restaurants) for sure. I also had a couple culinary school instructors that were longtime restaurateurs. They both still teach—Jackson Lamb and Charles Anderson. They were really great about being able to connect dots between the classroom and real life application. Jamey Fader (formerly the chef of Lola Coastal Mexican) is also like a big brother to me.
When you started working as a line cook with the Jax Denver team in 1998, did you have any aspirations of eventually becoming the executive chef at Jax Fish House?
That was so out there. It was unattainable when I was that age when it felt like I was still learning how to cook. But that was the dream for sure.
Since 1994, Jax has consistently been the recipient of many food awards, can you identify three reasons why this is the case?
- First, it’s just our standards of excellence. Upholding those standards means a ton. We have a lot of longtime fans, employees, and guests because they know the effort behind what we do.
- A lot of it has to do with the culture that stems from DQ. We take care of our people and that shows.
- And then of course is the sourcing of food— how we take care of the environment and have such high standards for the freshness of the product we bring in.
In the years following your attendance at the James Beard Foundation’s Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change, have you witnessed any notable changes in the restaurant industry?
For sure. I think the takeaway is that chefs have a voice. I learned how to use that voice, and how to be an advocate for the things I’m passionate about. Increasingly, people want to hear what we have to say. Chefs can get things done and be heard. We move the needle in the direction we want.
My passion revolves around the oceans and our supply chain for seafood. I saw real change when I talked to Congress. I felt truly heard— this little chef in Colorado can have a voice in something as big as our oceans.
What initiated your interest in sustainability programs?
I’ve been fortunate enough to fall into a restaurant group that was already really mindful about how we were sourcing food. We have always been about taking care of vendors, farmers, and fishermen. Dave always understood those connections and instilled in the Jax team and understanding of the people who bring us our food. But I really enjoyed learning more about it and continuing to carry on that tradition.
Can you describe the significance of Jax Fish House being the first restaurant in Colorado to be certified by the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch?
This certification says a lot about who we are and what we do. We have always quietly been an advocate for our oceans and taken time to make sure we’re sourcing all food properly, especially seafood. Before being certified, we always used Monterey Bay as a tool and resource to make sure we were sourcing the right thing, taking things from the ocean at the right time, and making sure seafood is being caught properly.
What has been the greatest challenge that you faced during the COVID-19 pandemic?
By far the hardest part was shutting the restaurants down. Those were some really dark day, We furloughed staff and tried to figure out what to do with the food—beautiful living oysters and other stuff. The week everything hit the fan was dark and horrible. And of course, just the unknown of how long it would last. I’m so happy that we’re now back to the point of reopening the restaurants.
Will you be implementing any significant changes when Colorado restaurants reopen in the near future?
The biggest thing is that we have the opportunity to reopen our restaurants and we’re grateful. We’re not taking it lightly. This is an opportunity to have a hard reset and think about who we are as chefs and what we provide for guests and staff.
We will be implementing changes that will keep our staff and guests safe. We want people to come back to us and be able to have an amazing experience again. It’s an opportunity that I’m so grateful for. So many of my friends in this business won’t have that opportunity to reopen, It’s just horrible.
Before Colorado restaurants were forced to close their dining rooms, were you contemplating opening any new restaurants or making any changes with existing restaurants? If so, have any of these plans changed?
We had just come off of opening Jax Colorado Springs and we were very much still in the honeymoon phase with the new site. We were also working with the airport to open Jax at the airport. We are still planning to do so.
Is there anything else that you’d like to share?
Thank you so much for highlighting the work of the local hospitality community. It means a lot during this hard time.
Here is a link to one of Chef Sheila’s favorite recipes— West Coast Oyster Ceviche .
When Sandy isn’t trekking or writing in the Colorado, she is traveling. She has visited more than 40 countries and lived as an international teacher in Bangalore, India. Sandy’s award-winning book, May This Be the Best Year of Your Life, is a resource for people contemplating an expat lifestyle and living outside their comfort zone.
Sandy’s lifestyle and travel experiences are frequently shared with international and domestic online sites and print media. She has contributed stories to Hemispheres, Destinations Magazine, KUHL’s Born in the Mountain blog, Grand Magazine, Wandering Educators, Golden Living, AARP, Hadassah magazine, Localliz, One Travel, Miles Away, Canadian Jewish News, Getting On Travel, Far and Wide, Colorado Parent, Traveler Confidential, Family Circle- Momster, and others.