When chef Michael Diaz de Leon took over Bruto in 2020, he was handed “four walls, a hearth oven and a couple of induction burners,” he said.
Three years later, Diaz de Leon has transformed Bruto into a Michelin-starred restaurant with a Michelin sustainability award and a 2023 James Beard nomination.
“No one really understands how much work goes into establishing a Michelin-starred restaurant,” Diaz de Leon said. “I didn’t take over a Michelin-starred restaurant. I started it from scratch. It required three years of 70-hour work weeks.”
But on Dec. 17, Diaz de Leon cooked his last meal in the Bruto kitchen. He’s leaving Denver restaurateur and chef Kelly Whitaker’s Id Est Hospitality Group to fulfill his lifelong dream of opening his own restaurant in the Mile High City.
“I’m happy to have left my mark on the Denver food scene, but this is not the end,” Diaz de Leon said. “I’m going to come back stronger. I can promise you that.”
Diaz de Leon said he always planned to move on from Bruto, Whitaker’s downtown Denver Mexican-inspired omakase restaurant, after three years. “I had already made the decision to move forward before Michelin, and that just happened to be the cherry on top,” he said.
Whitaker and his team are still searching for their next Bruto executive chef, according to Diaz de Leon.
For his last Bruto menu, Diaz de Leon featured the first dish he ever created for the restaurant: hearth bread with mole blanco dipping sauce, which ended up landing on The New York Times’ 2023 Best Restaurant Dish list. “It was a great ending to such a beautiful chapter,” he said.
Diaz de Leon set a standard for other fine-dining establishments in Denver when he stepped on the scene with his visually stunning dishes, elevated palette and passion for sustainability. He’s proud of the young chefs he’s helped push in the kitchen, who Diaz de Leon said “are now some of the strongest cooks in the city” and “can get into any door now with Bruto on their resume.”
But “I’m human, not Superman, and we all eventually get tired,” he said. Now, Diaz de Leon is going to take some time off to travel for inspiration.
He’s headed for a 14-day trip to South America on Christmas, where he’ll spend most of his time cooking at various events. Then he plans to visit his hometown in Texas to get back to his roots before zipping off to Mexico in February, where he’ll participate in the ticketed “Rockies in the Riviera” dinner series in Tulum with other Denver chefs.
“I’m an artist, and if I’m stuck in the kitchen six days a week, I’m not creative,” he said.
Once he’s done racking up frequent flyer miles, Diaz de Leon is looking forward to a bit of rest. “I need to be a dad for a little bit,” he said. “It’s time for me to get back to my family. My kids deserve their dad on the weekends and weeknights.”
In April or May, he plans to host some ticketed underground pop-up dinners to prepare for the eventual opening of his own restaurant in 2025.
Diaz de Leon hasn’t landed on a name or location, but his goal is to “open one of the best restaurants in America, regardless of accolades,” he said. The restaurant, like Bruto, will feature a wood-fired menu, a masa program and a small fermentation lab.
“I want to build Bruto on steroids,” he added.
Diaz de Leon is currently working on building his hospitality group, dubbed Pinchi Umami, the same name he used for his pop-up dinners before starting at Bruto in 2020.
“I want to build a restaurant where you can get Michelin-style service, but it’s affordable and approachable for anyone in the city,” Diaz de Leon said. “I want my daughter Luna’s teacher to be able to sit down next to Governor Polis, and make it special for anyone who walks in the door.”
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