On the Job With “Top Chef” Contestant Manny Barella

On this season of Top Chef, Denverites can cheer on local luminary Manny Barella, whose stellar culinary background prepped him to take on the ultimate cooking competition.

Manny Barella
Photo courtesy of Amber Boutwell.

In a foodie town like Denver, chefs occupy the cool kids’ table. They act as each other’s taste testers and cheerleaders—a big reason why chef Manny Barella is excited to watch his season of Top Chef air in their company. Barella’s culinary chops stem from his diverse background. Born in Mexico, Barella has an innate passion for flavors that transport people. Arriving in the States, he landed at the luxury Sea Island Resort in Georgia, then five-star Napa Valley resort Calistoga Ranch, and Michelin-rated Solage Resort before moving to Colorado. Here, he manned the kitchens at Frasca Food & Wine, Uchi, and Bellota, where he caught the attention of the James Beard Awards. Now, he’s leading the culinary program for the forthcoming Camp Pickle and starring on everyone’s favorite cooking show. Barella’s charm and his pozole won over viewers and judges alike on Episode 1, earning the Denver chef a premiere victory. To get your own taste of his charisma, read on.

The Top Chef decision: “It’s about putting the best of the best in the kitchen together, and I wanted to be part of it. Competing against other amazing chefs is a great way to fight off imposter syndrome.”

How his Mexican heritage flavors his craft: “Everything you do in life comes back to your heritage and how you were raised. I can remember dishes my grandma and mother made that inspired me to do this in the first place. I like to say that if people haven’t had the chance to go to Mexico, I want to bring Mexico to them.”

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On his journey through Colorado kitchens: “At Frasca, I was focused on pasta—very Italian. While Uchi focused on Japanese cuisine and presentation, and Bellota offered Mexican cuisine. Having a hand in all those pots and learning numerous cooking styles, presentations, and profiles came in very handy during my time on Top Chef.”

As the president of the Hispanic Chefs Association in Colorado: “My role at the HCA is all about educating and elevating Hispanic cuisine from BOH to FOH. We provide support, whether that’s scholarships or ESL classes, to help those in the community grow in their careers.”

Where Manny’s eating: “Lucina Eatery & Bar, Sap Sua, Alma Fonda Fina, Fruition, Urban Field Pizza & Market, and Dio Mio. Erasmo Casiano at Lucina is someone who I now call a friend. His food is outstanding, and his great flavors keep me inspired and on my toes. Johnny Curiel’s food at Alma is the kind that keeps you talking about it on the ride home—it’s a thing of beauty. And I look up to Michael Diaz [de Leon]. Being the first Mexican chef in Denver to win a Michelin star is not a small feat. I look forward to one day cooking alongside him.”

What he learned from Top Chef: “I’m more resilient and creative after the experience.”

On the Camp Pickle menu: “The menu is centered around elevating campfire cuisine. Think smoked proteins that marry Mexican flavors with camp cooking.”

Where to get a taste right now: “Mientras, a Manny Barella Pop-Up, runs every Monday and Tuesday evening at Cantina Loca. Dana Rodriguez has been kind enough to let us take over her kitchen, and we’re focused on Mientras through the first few weeks of the Top Chef season.”