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Who Is Dana Rodriguez, The Chef Who Aims To Elevate The Food At Casa Bonita?

LAKEWOOD, Colo (CBS4) - When the "South Park" creators announced their intentions to buy Casa Bonita, they acknowledged the food could use some help. And boy, did they deliver on a plan to improve it.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone have really turned up the heat by bringing James Beard Award-nominated chef Dana Rodriguez. And what a path she's taken to end up in the pink palace on Colfax Avenue.

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She grew up on a farm in Chihuahua, Mexico, on a farm without any running water or electricity. Her daily routine including helping her mother grind corn into masa for tortillas.

In 1998, Rodriguez came to Colorado to vacation and visit family and decided to stay. Her online bio starts with applying for a job at Panzano, an upscale Denver Italian restaurant where she met chef Jennifer Jasinki.

But when she spoke with CBS4, she shared a different early job application when she was staying her cousin.

"I say, 'Let's go and apply to a Mexican restaurant,' and she say ,'Casa Bonita is a big Mexican restaurant.' I came in and, (they said) 'You're not qualified to work here lady.'"

But that rejection simply put her on a path to culinary greatness. Jasinski saw Rodriguez's work ethic and intelligence, helping her get from dishwasher to prep cook and finally making her a sous chef with pasta making skills while conquering the bakeshop.

Rodriguez said it was her chef time in Rioja and Bistro Vendome where she learned what it truly took to run a kitchen.

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And along the way, she met Tony Maciag and in 2012, he offered the Executive Chef role and a piece of the action for what would eventually become Work & Class. It was her creativity there that earned her a nominations for the Best Chef Southwest Category by the James Beard Foundation in 2015 and 2016.

The team also created Super Mega Bien with Rodriguez's menu of Latin American cuisine that ranges from small plates served "dim sum style" to family style entrees for sharing.

But no matter how beloved, all restaurants took a hit during the pandemic and Work & Class and Super Mega Bien? Rodriguez and team made the decision to close them for a time in December 2020.

At the time, Rodriguez told Gionet the toll of the pandemic cost her financially and mentally.

"When something like this happens, it's unexpected, no one was prepared. Our government doesn't know what to do, what rules. The restaurants need help financially in different ways and we're not getting anything. It's almost like getting punished."

Rodriguez said she thrived on stress and wasn't bothered by working long hours.

"In the Latino community, you never think about you're going to break down, you're going to go down, you're always the strongest person. I'm a single mom with three kids. I'm like, you ever going to give up? Hell no," she said.

Both of the restaurants reopened and Rodriguez is ready to open Catina Loca in December 2021, where she'll serve up Mexico City Street food.

Then along came Cartman with Parker and Stone and an offer Rodriguez couldn't refuse. Even though she remembered that first encounter at Casa Bonita. "My reaction was like, 'Ooh maybe it's funny because I apply, they don't hire me. Now I can say no.'"

But she agreed to a tasting and they asked her to be their culinary partner. She said it took about 2 seconds to say yes.

Now she's ready to take on the challenge Casa Bonita poses. Up first, the kitchen. "I look at the kitchen, first of all, it's an enormous kitchen that I never work with big kitchens like that before… It's good because when you build something from scratch you can build it your way."

Casa Bonita
LAKEWOOD, CO - JANUARY 11: Sopaipillas of Casa Bonita. Mexican Pastry Dessert With Honey. January 11, 2019. Mexican restaurant Casa Bonita has been a memory-making institution for decades, filling children with countless sopapillas and dreams of plummeting from the top of a man-made, three-story indoor waterfall while people eat tacos, listen to Mariachi music and watch puppet shows around them. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Her goal is to live up to Parker and Stone's motto for Casa Bonita: Improve everything change but change nothing.

That means out with the canned orange-yellow cheese while keeping those sopapillas that make everything better.

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