Denver and Boulder's 10 Sweetest Culinary Power Couples (Zagat)

Valentine’s Day is one of the busiest and most stressful days of the year for restaurant folks all across the country, but for some lucky chefs and restaurateurs, getting through the chaos is that much easier when you’re working alongside the love of your life. Today we’re celebrating our favorite Denver and Boulder culinary couples, revealing everything from how these power duos first met, their favorite dates spots and more. Click through the slide show below to feel the love.

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  • Frank and Jacqueline Bonanno: Mizuna, Luca, Vesper Lounge, Osteria Marco, Lou’s Food Bar,Wednesday’s Pie, Russell’s Smokehouse, Bones, Salt & Grinder and Green Russell.

    Relationship status: Married, and together for 21 years.

    First encounter: Frank and Jacqueline met in 1994, while they were both working at the long-gone Rattlesnake Grill, a then-hot spot in the Cherry Creek Mall. Frank was doing his culinary school externship, and Jacqueline was waiting tables and student teaching.

    Five words to describe your relationship: Strong, thoughtful, caring, family-oriented and creative.

    Ups and downs of working in the same profession: “It’s wonderful to see each other throughout the day and to turn our creative visions into realities; that’s really special,” says Frank. Still, their relationship isn’t always a box of chocolates. “It can sometimes be challenging to make certain business decisions, and sometimes we spend perhaps a bit too much time together, but at the end of the day, we always figure it out. We’re a great team in that way,” Frank adds.

    Favorite date spot: Sushi Den is the couple’s go-to date spot. “We both love sushi, and we both really respect and admire co-owner and chef Toshi Kizaki,” says Frank.

    On the horizon: Frank is starring in season two of Chef Driven, a six-part series on Rocky Mountain PBS, which premieres on Saturday, February 7. Lou’s Food Bar is hosting a public preview party on Sunday, February 8, from 7-9 PM.

  • Photo by: Paul Porter

    Jennifer Jasinski: Rioja, Stoic & Genuine, Euclid Hall and Bistro Vendome and Max MacKissock: unnamed restaurant opening this summer

    Relationship status: Together for 10 years and “blissfully married,” says Jasinski, for three-and-a-half years.

    First encounter: They initially met at Rioja, Jasinski’s flagship restaurant on Larimer Square. “I was off the night that Max first came to Rioja, but I came in for a snack with Beth Gruitch, my business partner, and when I saw Max, I thought he was incredibly handsome,” says Jasinski. Three months after that initial introduction, they met up in Keystone for a weekend of skiing and had dinner at the Great Northern Tavern, where Max was cooking. “He made us an awesome meal, and then we started hanging out,” explains Jasinski, who later invited MacKissock to cook with her at the Taste of Vail. “That’s when we started dating and hanging out all the time,” says MacKissock, adding that he soon moved to Denver and the “rest is history.”

    Five words to describe your relationship: Happy, delicious, fun, like-minded and respectful.

    Ups and downs of working in the same profession: “When we’re together and in the same space, we collaborate really well,” says MacKissock. On the flip side, counters Jasinski, “We have really strong personalities and we’re both used to having our own way, especially in the kitchen, so we bicker about all the little things, but we’ve gotten much better.” And if you ask one to describe the other, they speak in unison: “Brilliant.”

    Favorite date spots: The couple raves about Sushi Sasa, Wayne Conwell’s Japanese restaurant in LoHi. “We love the food, we love the fish, we know everyone there, and it’s very comfortable for us,” says Jasinski. “We like Fruition a lot too, because it’s cozy and romantic, and you always know it’s going to be delicious and comforting. But to be totally honest, Max makes the best meals at home.”

    On the horizon: MacKissock, who was most recently at Williams & Graham, is opening a new restaurant in early June. He’s keeping the details close to his chest for the time being, but he shares this: “It’s an 80211 zip code and within two miles from my house, and it’s going to be super-cool for sure.” And on February 4,Jasinski will reopen Rioja, now 10 years old, following a massive interior remodel. “Beth and I put a lot of our own money back into our restaurants, and when people come to Denver, I really want Rioja to be the restaurant that they want to go to,” says Jasinki. “We want to be better than ever.”

  • Eric and Jill Skokan: Black Cat and Bramble & Hare

    Relationship status: Married, and a couple for 15 years.

    First encounter: The inseparable couple met at the now-closed Gold Lake Mountain Resort and Spa in the spring of 1998 when Eric was hired as the chef and Jill was the resort’s general manager. “It was challenging and magical all at the same time, and we had a lot of respect for each other from the beginning and enjoyed working together on the management team,” remembers Eric, who worked at the resort until 2005, when it was sold. He and Jill opened Black Cat Bistro in 2006.

    Five words to describe your relationship: “Best thing that ever happened,” declares Eric.

    Ups and downs of working in the same profession: “We get to spend the majority of our days together, so it’s easy to stay connected, empathize and celebrate with each other, and we accomplish more together than we ever could separately,” Eric says.

    Favorite date spots: Arabesque in Boulder and Cheese Importers in Longmont are their two favorites. “We love the attention to detail and the charm, love and care at both places, plus the food is always delicious,” says Eric.

    On the horizon: The big push is to make farm dinners happen in a spectacular way, and there’s a barn renovation underway too.

  • Steve Jankousky and Tom Unterwagner: Tom’s Home Cookin’

    Relationship status: Partners, together for 20 years.

    First encounter: Steve and Tom met in March of 1995 at The Grand, a long-gone watering hole in Uptown. “It was a really crowded bar, and there was only one open stool, which just happened to be next to Tom,” says Steve. They hit it off and their first date, a week later, was pizza at Wazee Supper Club, then a drink at My Brother’s Bar and coffee at Paris on the Platte, a nostalgic hangout that just closed last week after pouring java for decades. “Denver was so different back then,” recalls Steve. “I think there were only six places that existed in LoDo/LoHi, and we hit three of them in one night.”

    Five words to describe your relationship: Funny, adventurous, curious, symbiotic and comfortable.

    Ups and downs of working in the same profession: The worst thing, reports Jankousky: “It’s a lot of time together!” Of course, that’s the best part of their relationship too.

    Favorite date spots: Their definitive favorites are Mizuna and Luca, two of Frank Bonanno’s restaurants. “We’ve been going to both since they opened, and the food is always terrific, the service is always welcoming and well-timed, and the wine lists and the sommeliers are superb,” says Jankousky, adding that “the staff always make us feel great for having spent the evening there.”

    Most romantic food moment: Last May they had a dream dinner in Paris at Restaurant Jean-Francois Piege. “The dining room was incredibly sexy, and the food was stellar, plus it’s Paris, so there was champagne, Burgundy and cognac. It doesn’t get any better than that,” says Jankousky.

  • Kate Kavanaugh and Josh Curtiss: Western Daughters Butcher Shoppe

    Relationship status: Life and business partners, together for five years and change. A honky-tonk/barbecue/hoedown wedding is forthcoming.

    First encounter: They met through Josh’s sister, Verity, whom Kavanaugh went to college with. “I was entirely uninterested in meeting him and avoided several of her matchmaking endeavors, but when I finally did meet him, that was it,” she says.

    Five words to describe your relationship: “F*ck it, let’s do this.”

    Ups and downs of working in the same profession: The most difficult part, reveals Kavanaugh, is that taking a vacation together is virtually impossible since they own a small business. As for the best thing? “We’re completely complementary, we balance reason and insanity, we’re constantly dreaming and we stay grounded, plus I think we’re constantly challenging each other to reach new heights, to go even further after all these cooked-up dreams we have together,” says Kavanaugh.

    Favorite date spots: It depends on the night, but after long days at their two butcher shoppes, they make time for dates at Meadowlark Kitchen and Cart-Driver, both of which stay open late and, says Kate, offer “outstanding food.” Still, you’ll find the couple all around town, constantly trying new restaurants.

    On the horizon: There’s much more to come, both for Western Daughters and additional concepts. “I can’t talk about anything just yet, but we’re champing at the bit to really bite into the next thing,” says Kavanaugh.

  • Photo by: Chad Chisholm

    Tom and Diane Coohill: Coohills

    Relationship status: Married, and together 24 years.

    First encounter: They both worked for the same restaurant company in Atlanta, where Diane was the the director of sales for all 19 of the restaurants in the company, and Tom was the chef of the flagship restaurant City Grill. “I chased her around for six months until she finally gave in and went out with me,” says Tom.

    Five words to describe your relationship: Fun, adventurous, caring, experimental and incredible.

    Ups and downs of working in the same profession: “Diane keeps me organized, we get to share in the good things we’re doing, and it’s great having someone you trust to help run the restaurant, plus we get to take culinary-related trips and vacations to places like the Wine Country,” Tom says. But it’s not always easy. Being together so often, admits Tom, means that they get on each other’s nerves every once in a while, and it’s difficult, he adds, to let work go when they’re not at the restaurant.

    Favorite date spots: Rather than going out, they stay home and cook and watch movies.

    Most romantic food moment: On their first getaway together, they had an intimate dinner at HangawiKorean vegetarian restaurant in New York. Diane is a vegetarian, notes Tom, “and we were lucky enough to find Hangawi, a really upscale restaurant where you take your shoes off, sit at low tables and feast on incredible vegetarian food.”

  • Josh and Jen Wolkon: Vesta Dipping Grill, Steuben’s and Ace Eat Serve & Ace Juice Bar

    Relationship status: Married 15 years, together for 18.

    First encounter: Despite the fact that they both attended the University of Vermont, where they were two years apart, they met in Boulder in 1996 through a mutual friend from Vermont, who introduced the couple on Fat Tuesday. The couple started dating officially during the opening of Vesta Dipping Grill. “We thought we were keeping our relationship a secret for a while, but apparently everybody knew,”

    Five words to describe your relationship: Fun, active, supportive, genuine and loving.

    Ups and downs of working in the same profession: “Back when we truly worked together on a daily basis, it was the only way that we could spend time together given the crazy hours, but things have changed, and now the best part of working together is the creative aspect of designing and building restaurants as well as the late-night conversations covering all bases of the restaurants,” says Josh. If there’s a downside, it’s the feeling of “living the same life versus two separate lives, and it can also be difficult to turn off the business at the end of the day,” he admits.

    Favorite date spots: While the couple has had plenty of late-night dates at Pete’s kitchen, an iconic 24/7 diner on East Colfax, Sushi Sasa is their bonding spot for a leisurely lunch date. Beyond that, says Josh, “We try to stay up on the Denver dining scene by trying new places and always returning to our ethnic favorites.”

    On the horizon: All three of Josh and Jen’s restaurants are participating in Denver Restaurant Week, and reservations are going fast.

  • Troy and Nikki Guard: TAG, Bubu, Tag Burger Bar, Guard and Grace, Sunnyside Burger Bar,Sugarmill and Los Chingones

    Relationship status: Married, together for almost four years total.

    First encounter: They met at TAG. Nikki was interviewing for a job at Rioja and TAG at the same time, and TAG, says Troy, offered her a little more money and a better schedule.

    Five words to describe your relationship: Fun, healthy, loving, supportive and exciting.

    Ups and downs of working in the same profession: “Not everyone can handle it, but we both love working together, pushing each other to stay on task, holding each other accountable, and we enjoy bouncing great thoughts and ideas off of each other. After all, two sets of eyes are always better than one,” says Troy, who describes their relationship as “amazing.”

    Favorite date spots: Troy and Nikki hit up Marco’s Coal-Fired Pizzeria on date night, as well as Sushi Den and Hillstone. “We love hanging at Marco’s with owners Mark and Kristy Dym, the food is always exceptional, and it just has a great vibe with cool staff members,” says Troy. And like most chefs who frequent Sushi Den, Troy notes that you “can’t go wrong sitting at the chef’s counter and letting the guys do their magic.” They enjoy Hillstone in Cherry Creek North for its dim lighting and ability to sneak in unnoticed.

    On the horizon: Troy is opening a second Bubu in Lowry on February 10, and another Los Chingones in the Denver Tech Center area in June. And there’s definitely more on the horizon,” he says. “I love creating and giving our staff/managers an opportunity to keep growing with us. Here’s to a kick-ass 2015.”

    By Lori Midson

    Febuary 4, 2015