Chef Frank Bonanno on Why Colorado Deserves Culinary Cred

The Denver chef talks family, food, travel and his new TV show, 'Chef Driven.'

Chef Frank Bonanno is the mastermind of an array of successful restaurant concepts across the Denver area. Among them, Mizuna (French), Bones (ramen), Luca (Italian) and Vesper Lounge (Mediterranean/pub) sit side-by-side on the same street corner in the Governor’s Park neighborhood at Seventh Avenue and Grant Street.

Originally from New Jersey, Bonanno grew up exposed to the diverse dining scene in New York City. He has since made his home in Denver and is helping to place the city on the map for its culinary endeavors. His show, “Chef Driven,” which airs locally on PBS, highlights the many farmers, ranchers, brewers and bakers that contribute to the Rocky Mountain culinary scene. 

Pan-roasted foie gras at Mizuna (©Bonanno Concepts)

You’ve helped create some of the best and most well-known restaurant concepts in Denver. To what do you attribute your success?

I work with great people. My team is the reason I am successful, no question. Having a business degree doesn’t hurt, either, and I’m very passionate about what I do. I love to cook. I have and always will be a cook first. 

What brought you to the Mile High City?

I came to Denver to be a DU [University of Denver] student. I started working at Anthony’s Pizza, and the rest is history. 

Denver isn’t usually thought of as a destination city for talented chefs. What made you choose to start a career here?

I love Denver, and I’ve always seen its potential as a great food city. One of my first kitchen jobs was at the Rattlesnake Grill (it’s closed now), and that’s where I fell in love with my wife, Jacqueline. We wanted to build our life in Denver. It’s just a great place. 

How has your family inspired your career direction and cooking style?

Family is everything to me—my immediate family and my restaurant family. I’ve always worked hard to support my wife and kids and make my family proud. That motivation has definitely carried through to my career, but my restaurant family has been a big part of it, too. I started opening more restaurants to give more opportunities to the people I work with—the people who have helped Bonanno Concepts become what it is today. My cooking style is always evolving as we grow. 

Chef Frank Bonanno
The Denver restaurateur and television host remains a chef first and foremost (©Bonanno Concepts).

Who’s the most famous or most interesting person you’ve prepared a meal for?

Anthony Bourdain. He came to visit Mizuna when he was in Denver a couple years ago. He’s awesome. 

What’s the best meal you’ve ever had, and what’s your favorite food?

The French Laundry, 1998—most thoughtful meal I’ve ever had. My favorite food? Pizza, for sure. 

Which Denver restaurants do you enjoy?

I enjoy going out with my family, and it’s usually for really simple pleasures. We love cheeseburgers and milkshakes at Park Burger, Vietnamese crab legs at New Saigon, pancakes at Lou’s Food Bar, pizza at Osteria Marco or Blue Pan Pizza, tacos from Tacos Jalisco … just really great, simple food. 

When your chef hat comes off, how do you like to spend your free time?

I love to golf and I love to play squash. Most importantly, I love being with my kids. That’s the best day off. 

How did your show, “Chef Driven,” come about?

The idea behind “Chef Driven” was born somewhat from a frustration. I’ve been cooking in Colorado for a long time, and I don’t think our state has gotten the culinary cred it deserves. I wanted to create a show to highlight the amazing artisans we have in our state, and that idea has started to evolve into something greater. Moving into our second season, we’re now telling bigger stories, tying it all back to home. The point is, we’re all connected in the food community, and I think it’s important to understand that and put it in perspective. Plus, I’ve always loved PBS cooking shows, and always hoped I could have my own. 

What’s next for you?

Hopefully getting “Chef Driven” picked up on PBS stations across the country. It would be a dream to get some recognition from the James Beard Foundation for the show. That would be awesome.