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CMU Tech Culinary Arts Alumni Earn Michelin Award and Colorado Chef of the Year

By definition, Mavericks frequently take the road less traveled, which might explain why they may be pleasantly surprised when their journey leads to the top of the world. Kelly Kawachi and Nick Winden, alumni of the Culinary Arts Program at CMU Tech, were honored late last year as the best in their chosen fields in Colorado.

Kawachi, ’10, one of the few female head butchers in the U.S., was celebrated in September as a 2023 Michelin Guide Professional Award winner. Winden, ’05, was crowned Chef of the Year by the Colorado Restaurant Association in a November 2023 ceremony. Both admit being blindsided by their awards.

“When I got that call, it almost sounded a little bit make-believe,” said Winden, who is in his eighth year as head chef at Laundry Kitchen & Cocktails, one of the most-popular restaurants in Steamboat Springs. “In fact, I don’t think it really sunk in for any of us until we went to the awards ceremony in Denver, where we brought our whole crew, and a lot of my family.”

Kawachi said she was scanning the room in reverence of other nominees – people she admires as giants of her industry – when she heard her name announced.

“I was totally in shock. I didn’t really know how to react. I was like, ‘Wait … what? What’s going on?’” said the Hawaii native, who has been head butcher at Blackbelly Market in Boulder for almost three years. “I glanced over at my boss’ wife, and she said, ‘Uh, Kelly, you need to go up there!’”

Becoming a chef might have been destiny for Winden, who was so enamored with cooking as a child that his mother bought him a crème brûlée kit – complete with a tiny torch – when he  in the first grade.

“I thought it was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said of the memorable gift. “She was always giving me random cooking stuff because I was really into it.”

Kawachi, a former high school runner, and an avid hiker and snowboarder, thrives on the physical nature of being a butcher. Her future was inspired in Hawaii, where she enjoyed a job cutting fish alongside her father, but began to develop a fascination with butchery after a local rancher brought in lamb rib section to be sawed down.

“That was pretty fun!” she recalls.

She also considered becoming a baker, then had an educational stint as a sous chef, before pursuing butchery.

“I learned so much about cooking as a sous chef, but it was labor-intensive – a long week, a lot of hours – and I got burned out,” she said. With encouragement from her mom, she eventually headed to Colorado and to CMU Tech.

“The culinary program was amazing and I also fell in love with Colorado. If I could go back to that time, I wouldn’t change any part of my experience there.”

Winden, who explored multiple Colorado culinary schools before enrolling at CMU Tech, has the same high praise.

“A lot of people in my industry say they didn’t get a lot out of culinary school, but I feel the complete opposite,” he said. “The things I learned at Mesa, and what it did for my cooking career, are just irreplaceable.” 


Written by Dennis Taylor