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Meals That Made Them: Denver Chef Jenna Johansen

Denver chef Jenna Johansen, who appeared on Bravo's "Around the World With 80 Plates," shares two dishes that shaped her early experiences with cooking.

Denver chef Jenna Johansen, who appeared on Bravo's "Around the World With 80 Plates," shares two dishes that shaped her early experiences with cooking.

Whoever you thought you saw on Bravo’s “Around the World in 80 Plates” is not the high-spirited, sweet-as-pie Jenna Johansen we Coloradans have known and loved for years, from her previous work at Dish in the mountain town of Edwards to her current blog, The Last Thing We Ate, co-authored with husband Mark DeNittis, a master salumi purveyor and owner of Il Mondo Vecchio in Denver. Here is her own, free-wheeling recollection of how she developed her passion for cooking.

“When I was growing up, we didn’t have a lot of money; my parents worked really hard and made a lot of dinners in the Crock-Pot. So as a latchkey junior high kid, I started to do more cooking. That was something I could do to help, one of the nice contributions I could make to my family; some of the first great memories I have are when we’d all sit down to a dinner I cooked and they would tell me how wonderful it was.

Jenna’s ‘sexy yet so approachable’ culinary inspiration

“I was a child of the ’70s, so this was before the Internet; you couldn’t go online and Google recipes. I’d watch Julia Child and Jacques Pepin and take notes on how to make enchiladas suizas, tacos — I wanted exposure to new things. One of the first dishes I ever made that really helped me understand the science of meat cookery was osso bucco. I had never made my own stock; I didn’t know what a mirepoix was: ‘OK, so if I add a little tomato, that actually makes it rich and glossy!’ Rather than throwing the ingredients in the Crock-Pot, I could see the way things actually worked, and I suddenly realized, ‘Wow, I’m actually good at this!’ And osso bucco was especially nice because it didn’t require an expensive cut I’d have to ask my parents to buy. That dish is one of the nearest and dearest to my heart: It’s so sexy yet so approachable, and hearkens to the day when people used the whole animal.

“Another great dish for me is pasta carbonara; we cooked it a lot in the restaurant that I worked at in Tuscany. The real thing is very different from what you’d get at Maggiano’s — I learned how to make it correctly, with pancetta from pigs we got across the street, which we cured ourselves out in a little shed, and without cream. It was a culinary ‘Aha!’ for me, since I’d only known the Americanized version that was basically like an Alfredo — not the creamy, sexy, glossy pasta it is.

“Mark knew that it was a dish that was close to my heart and he made it for me on our first date, with guanciale he’d cured himself at Mondo Vecchio. He was strutting his feathers, showing me all his wares [laughs]. It was the first time I’d had his salumi other than at a food show, which was where we met. Now we have carbonara about once a month and it’s like our first date all over again.”

Osso Bucco

Serves 4 


4 pork shanks

Kosher salt and black pepper

Flour as needed for dusting

½ cup canola oil

1 yellow onion, minced

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 carrot, peeled and minced

1 rib celery and minced

1½ cups red wine

1 teaspoon dried Italian herbs

1 teaspoon chili flakes, divided

1 can (14.5 ounces) diced tomatoes with juice

3 cups chicken stock

1 tablespoon Italian parsley, chopped

Zest from 1 lemon, minced

2 tablespoons unsalted butter


1. Preheat oven to 350 F.

2. Heat canola oil in braising pan. Season shanks with salt and pepper, then dust them with flour, knocking off the excess, and sear them in the hot pan until brown on all sides. Remove from pan and set aside.

3. Add onion and garlic to pan and sauté until translucent. Add carrots and celery; sauté 3 minutes. Add wine and reduce by half. Add dried herbs, ½ teaspoon chili flakes and tomatoes and heat through.

4. Return meat to pan and cover with stock; then cover the pan and place in oven for 2 to 3 hours, or until meat is so tender it pulls easily from the bone — and you can’t possibly wait one more minute to eat it. While it’s cooking, mix the parsley, remaining chili flakes and lemon zest to make gremolata.

5. Remove the meat from the pan, return to medium-low heat and reduce the sauce to desired thickness. Season to taste with salt and pepper, then gently stir in the butter. Place shanks on a serving platter; spoon sauce and sprinkle gremolata on top.

Pasta Carbonara

Serves 4


1 pound dried angel-hair pasta

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

¼ pound guanciale or pancetta

2 shallots, minced

6 garlic cloves, minced

Splash white wine

½ teaspoon chili flakes

3 farm-fresh egg yolks

Fresh black pepper and kosher salt

½ cup Parmesan or pecorino romano cheese

2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped


1. In a pot, boil water as salty as the sea to cook the pasta while preparing the sauce; you want them both to be ready at the same time because the pasta must be added to the sauce while it is hot to “cook” the egg. Cook the pasta to al dente and reserve ½ cup of the water.

2. Heat olive oil in a pan. Dice the guanciale finely, and sauté in the hot pan for 2 minutes, until it starts to crisp and release some fat.  Add shallots and garlic; sauté until translucent. Add the wine to deglaze, then the chili flakes.

3. Whisk egg yolks in a separate bowl; add hot pasta water and continue to whisk quickly so they heat, but don’t scramble. Add cheese and whisk again.

4. Add hot pasta to pan. Working quickly, stir to combine until heated through; pull pan from heat and continue to stir until sauce thickens. Season liberally with fresh black pepper and salt to taste. Garnish with parsley and more cheese, if desired.

Photo: Jenna Johansen. Credit: Troy Cone

Zester Daily contributor Ruth Tobias is a seasoned food-and-beverage writer for numerous city and national publications; she is also the author of  "Food Lover's Guide to Denver & Boulder" and "Denver and Boulder Chef's Table" from Globe Pequot Press. Her website is or follow her @Denveater.

  • Elizabeth 7·20·12

    What do you call carbonara if it has peas in it? I grew up eating something at a Wolfgang Puck restaurant in Hollywood that was called carbonara and had pancetta, cream, and peas in it. I now know that with peas it’s not the real thing, but the Italians must do this too on occasion, no? What does one call it?

    Love the story of how Jenna and Mark met. Meat can be very seductive!

  • Elizabeth 7·20·12

    A question for Jenna: I’ll be in the Denver/Boulder area for two nights in early August and need to make a reservation to take my fiance out for his birthday. What are your favorite places to go in the city for a celebratory meal? We eat everything.

  • Gordon 7·23·12

    Osso Bucco is made from a cross cut of a Veal shank. Being that it is Italian in origin it has tomatoes in it. Nice recipe but it is not Osso Bucco. Use Veal.