Meet Chef Sheila Lucero – Culinary Director of Big Red F Restaurant Group and the second chef we’re meeting to celebrate National Seafood Month! To see the posted interview, click here. For the full interview, Q&A below!
Q: Could you start off by introducing yourself and sharing a bit about your culinary journey? And what do you love about cooking seafood in particular?
A: My name is Sheila Lucero and I am the Culinary Director for Big Red F Restaurant Group and work really closely with Jax Fish House. I started cooking after college. I was kind of lost with what I wanted to do. I had just finished playing soccer, that was a huge part of my life. I needed to find something to fulfill that loss and I kind of stumbled into restaurants. Instantly, it clicked for me in the kitchen. I really felt the teamwork and pace of things, really jived with what I felt on the soccer field. The teamwork aspect was something I missed, and it really clicked for me. I had no formal training and thought culinary school would be the best route for me.
After begging my parents to help me financially get there, I went to the Art Institute of Colorado, and at the same time I was also working. It was great to be able to apply both sides of the culinary skillsets that I was picking up at school and at work, I was really starting to find a groove.
I started working at Jax Fish House in downtown Denver right when it had opened, and I was still in culinary school. I was line cooking, going to school, and loving every minute of it. That was the first job for me in the restaurant business where people were in it, and passionate about it. It wasn’t just about punching the time clock, or super transient, there were a lot of people who were in it and showing up passionate every day. Loved talking about food, what books they were reading… there was a cultural piece that really resonated with me.
I told myself whether or not I would stay with Jax, I would bring that piece to whatever kitchen I work in. It was very impactful for me. Ultimately, I have been with this restaurant group and given a lot of opportunities and I’ve really found a passion for seafood.
I’m from Colorado so I didn’t have the accessibility to seafood when I was young, and I got into seafood because I didn’t know anything about it. And I still don’t. (laughs) I’m still learning everyday, which is great. That’s why we do it and that’s what’s really pushed me to learn more and more about where we are getting our food from. And hopefully, being able to be apart of letting the seafood community grow, accessibility grow, our knowledge of it to grow.
Hopefully, we can continue to enjoy it for generations. That’s the goal.
Q: What’s a seafood dish you’re currently working on or have perfected? What unique elements or flavors does it have?
I don’t know about perfected, I don’t know if I’ve ever perfected any of the dishes. I’m proud of a lot of them. When I think perfection, I think of oysters. The simplicity of a raw oysters on a half shell. I mean that’s pretty perfect, I can’t take credit for that. I try to do it justice in shucking it properly and serving it as simply as possible. The dishes – they come and go – but I’m a big fan of oysters.
Q: Many chefs draw inspiration from sources like travel, culture, or personal experiences. What inspires your seafood creations?
I’m a big reader. I dive into books a lot to refresh and inspire myself. Especially when we are thinking about seasonality, what’s coming next on the menu, and where we are sourcing things from. There’s a great chef community here in Denver, that I’ve been so fortunate to be apart of and kind of grew up through. So there’s some connectivity there and a lot of great food conversations happening.
I think the Denver dining scene is great, so even dining out is inspiring. There’s a lot of really good stuff happening here. I’ve got a great network of chef colleagues that work with Monterey Bay Aquarium, and we’ve been able to do a lot of traveling and great events as advocates for the ocean together – and that’s really cool to see what other people are doing across the country with the same mindset I have around food. I think those areas have been really impactful for me in developing my kind of cooking style.
Q: SAGE’s mission is to empower women and genderqueer people and promote gender equality in the seafood sector. Could you share your thoughts on initiatives like this in the culinary industry and how you see them impacting the profession?
I think we need more of it, and I love the work that SAGE is doing. I’m a huge fan. I think we need more diversity, we need more equity, all these things will help the seafood industry as a whole. Like I mentioned earlier, we want seafood to be around for generations to come and the accessibility to it. I think the more diverse community we have – we’ll thrive. The possibilities are limitless when we have more people talking about it.
Q: Your journey can be an inspiration to many aspiring chefs. What advice do you have for people who are starting out, especially those interested in seafood cuisine?
My advice is work hard, be open minded, be positive. It’s a really great industry, it gives back. But it’s also really challenging, be resilient and keep your head up. Learning through the mistakes and missteps – you’ll be better for it. It’s a great place to be. Just dive it in and sponge it up. In hospitality and in restaurants, you can pick something up anywhere. So just be a sponge.