"Chef’s Table Talk 2024: Choppin’ It Up With Josh Niernberg

Josh Niernberg

When considering the best places to live in the United States, Grand Junction often gets overlooked. Part of Grand Valley, along with Fruita and Palisade, USA Today just described it as “Colorado’s Best Kept Secret’ and listed it as the best city to live in the state of Colorado. Between the majestic Rocky Mountains and the arid landscapes of the Colorado Plateau, this city offers breathtaking natural beauty and a surprisingly vibrant community. However, one key figure has elevated this city to new heights and made it a hidden gem for both residents and visitors alike—Chef Josh Niernberg of Bin 707 Foodbar and Taco Party. His culinary prowess and dedication to community engagement have not only transformed the local food scene but also contributed significantly to the city's economic and cultural landscape. Through innovative dishes that highlight local ingredients and a commitment to sustainable practices, Chef Niernberg has created a dining experience that attracts food enthusiasts from all over. Additionally, his involvement in local events and partnerships with local farmers and wineries have strengthened the community bonds and helped promote Grand Junction and the Grand Valley as a destination worth exploring.

I sat down with the James Beard-nominated chef to chop it up regarding his less than direct path to culinary including his time as a competitive snowboarder, what regional cuisine should look like in the U.S., and Grand Junction and the Grand Valley as a food and wine destination.


What's the first experience or what's the first memory you have of food?

My grandparents on my dad’s side had a tradition, we’d go eat at a Jewish deli in town every week. I’d have Matzo brei (or fried matzah) and bagel and lox; it was old school Jewish deli food that doesn’t really exist anymore, especially out here in the midwest.


How old were you when you started cooking?

My parents separated when I was young so I started cooking at the house around 10 or 11 years old, making dinner and whatnot for me and my brother. I had a short list of things that I liked to make, tacos being pretty far up on that list.


Did you always want to be a chef?

Honestly, I think it was kind of by default. I was artistic and I thought that I wanted to do something in the arts. Either art or graphic design. So, I spent a good amount of time kind of focusing on that, especially through high school and then in college majoring in graphic design. Also during this time I was really into skateboarding and snowboarding as it was another outlet for my artistic side. And I got to the point that I was pretty competitive in snowboarding, but cooking never really went away. At some point that kind of flipped. I realized that applying that creativity towards food and cooking sort of scratches that itch, you know? I don't want to say that what I do is an art by any means, but the idea of taking that artistic expression and applying it to a medium like food was something that I never really anticipated. They just sort of found each other.


Talk to me more about this flip? You were pursuing a career in professional snowboarding. Olympics, X Games, etc. How did that end and your culinary journey begin?

I don't think snowboarding as a career has ever really been a solid career choice. There's not, even still to this day, a lot of money in it. I raced Snowboard Cross, which is very specialized and virtually impossible to make a living at it. So, in trying to do so, it was a necessity that I had a secondary career. That secondary career grew from cutting my teeth in an old Chicago pizzeria learning how to make dough and the sauces back in my teens to eventually working for some of the best chefs in the U.S.:12

I moved around a little bit. I lived in Lake Tahoe, California for a while. I was an instructor on the mountain, working three separate restaurant jobs to pay my way. So I was working breakfast service at the Embassy Suites Hotel before I hit the mountain. Then I'd get off the mountain and go to Fresh Ketch Restaurant and work evening grill service. On my days off I would go to this bar that had a taco night and eventually started working there on the taco night. I was in Tahoe to snowboard, but at the time I didn’t realize that spending 60 hours a week cooking gave me far more experience in cooking than snowboarding. I can say that I did get a bit more serious about getting away from snowboarding, but still not culinary. I decided to go back to school to study Industrial Design in my late twenties/early thirties.

[I interrupt, and with a smile say to Josh , “Nothing is a straight line with you is it?]

[With a smirk] I suppose not.

Industrial design did help me put definition to my need for an artistic outlet a little bit. I describe industrial design as rapid prototyping and manufacturing of a product. Right? Develop, figure out how to make it repeatable, and then produce it. So, applying that to a menu item, all of a sudden I've got this fairly formal education in taking an arbitrary product and turning it into something unique and replicable. With my background in cooking and where I was in my life, I said, ‘look, I've got this.’ I see this ramp here that I need to get on and just let it run. So despite spending a long time in my teens and 20s in kitchens, it was really in my early 30s that I kind of saw that opportunity to be chef. I guess it was later than a lot of chefs do. But that's when I did it.

[You bloom when you bloom]

Yeah. That's right.


I had never heard of Grand Junction, CO or the Grand Valley until I visited your restaurant. How did you end up there?

I met my wife. I was helping to open up a restaurant in Denver as a front of house manager. While I was waiting for that restaurant to finish construction I took a job waiting tables where my wife was a bartender. Once we got together she wanted to move back to where she is from, which is the Grand Valley.

In 2007 right before the economy crashed, Grand Junction was all oil and gas. I mean, it was like 80% of the economy or some ridiculous number, and the oil and gas pulled out of our community. So I've already got this vision of what I want to do and make my space within restaurants. I asked myself, ‘how do we dial this into something that is super representational of where we are in the world?’ Palisades Wine Country exists, and we’ve got all this agriculture, but at this time we didn’t have locally sourced cuisine. And I think that kind of made me an early adopter in that locavore scene. I saw the opportunity to make something unique and be creative with that. We could replicate and turn it into a little micro economy here in the Grand Valley and shift towards hospitality. The result was Bin 707 opening in 2011. We’ve been 13 years on that mission, and roughly halfway into that, I started to see a secondary mission. Which is, what does regional cuisine look like throughout the United States? My team and I have been exploring it ever since, so the menus aren’t really an expression of what I want to cook. They're an expression of what I think is appropriate for where we are in the world and how we get there.


Your face has lit up two times during this interview. One was talking about meeting your wife, the other is this idea of “Regional Cuisine.” Why is “Regional Cuisine” so important to you, Chef?

Let’s take Italy, for example. And this is no knock by any means on anyone's cuisine. Italy is a very, very small place on the global map right? But, the amount of culinary influence that it's had is astronomical, massive. I mean you could travel anywhere and have a recognizable Italian dish. Yet, you probably couldn't travel to Tokyo and have a dish from Cincinnati, right? It's just not going to happen.

However, take into consideration the age of the United States and then each individual state, and you start to realize that they have history to build upon. For example, Colorado had a bad rap for being southwestern food and the ‘southwestern food of the 80s.’ That died pretty hard. But you know what? Those ingredients, those styles, those pathways, they exist. Even if at one time they got blown out of proportion to a laughable version of itself. So for me, we're trying to just explore the idea of regional cuisine in the Grand Valley. And I'd like to see more of that regional cuisine approach grow in other places in the world.


So how would you define the regional cuisine of Grand Valley and Colorado?

Well, I don't know if it has been defined. Trying to define that is not necessarily something that we're going to do. It's something that we're going to pay respect to. We have ingredients from immigration pathways such as the Europeans that went to the high Rockies. Multi-generational Greek families that have been in the area for 120 years that were raising sheep in the high Rockies which has now turned into what is now ‘Colorado Lamb.’ And Colorado Lamb has kind of grown to the point that now it's domestic lamb. We have indigenous corn which originated from the Ute Mountain Tribe as well. Simultaneously we've got influence from import/export routes. We are way closer to the West Coast and import routes coming in from Asia than we are to Europe. So, I think we see a lot of influence from Asian techniques, Asian ingredients, and Asian preservation. Let’s not forget we are in the Southwest. So if you take the boundaries off of things, just the natural ingredients, we have to work with the peppers, the cactus, Mexican influence, Central America influence, what have you. I think all of those things create this really kind of unique melting pot. To be clear, I don't think that where we are has differentiated itself that much from maybe the Front Range or Denver area of Colorado, except that we don't have a long history of relevant restaurants in Western Colorado. This creates an opportunity to look at some of the legacy stuff that's been here, you know, rather than just a restaurant that has switched signs out front every five years for the last 25 or 30, or what have you.


What was the reaction from people in Grand Valley when you opened? Was there any resistance or did people come over to you, shake your hand, and basically say, ‘it's about damn time?’

All the above. And we still get a range of reactions. If there is ever a golden era of restaurants, at least in my lifetime, I think it was the early 2010s, so we were smack dab in the middle of it while that's blowing up. The Grand Valley was changing. Outdoor recreation was starting to increase and that kind of naturally built into a clientele for us. At the same time, we have first generation farmers, along with multiple generation farmers that we're buying products from. And so we've got that as a customer base. We were kind of pulling from all of these different pieces of a micro industry that existed here. It also didn’t hurt that Jared Leto had to make an emergency landing in Grand Valley around 2013. He came into the restaurant and went on a podcast and told them it was the best meal he ever had. So we've had all these funny pieces: one piece - destination dining, one piece - agriculture, one piece - outdoor recreation. Like I said earlier we still get the gambit of responses, but there’s also an appreciation. I've heard countless times, people tell me that the main reason they decided to move to the Grand Valley is because they had access to restaurants like ours which makes them feel like whatever city in the country they are from. I think that speaks to whatever we do here at Bin 707. It needs to be relevant to a national culinary conversation while being unique and specific to us.


I’m glad you said that! There are some rating systems and organizations that won’t recognize a chef or restaurants unless substantial financial resources are allocated towards evaluating them. A place like Grand Valley may not have the budget for that. What are your thoughts on this?

[We both laugh really hard]

[Josh gives me a side eye and smirk] That’s a loaded question if I ever heard one.

Let’s start with what I said earlier. I think the most important thing that any chef should be doing anywhere in the country is defining regional cuisine. What separates Europe? Why does the regional cuisine of Italy have such provenance, whereas the regional cuisine of somewhere else does not? There are legitimate answers to that, of course. But you know, the stronger we collectively differentiate ourselves from one another and from where we are in the world, the stronger our case will make for the Michelins, the James Beards, etc. They will create awards, guides, and platforms that are based upon actual restaurants doing unique things. However, I do understand their right and their need to be profitable in promoting those restaurants right now. All that said, when I moved to Grand Valley and when we opened Bin 707, my goal was to not be the face of the restaurant. My goal was to be able to open, create stuff, and to teach hospitality and culinary arts as a viable career within the area. This is not a chef-driven thing. It is not a ‘hey, look at me, I'm the guy in front’ and whatever.

That worked for a long time. It wasn't until we opened Taco Party that it proved that had I not gone and stepped into the public eye, so to speak, Taco Party would not still be here. I opened in 2017, hired a PR person and I joined a group called then the Denver Five, which I helped turn into the Colorado Five. I cooked at the James Beard House in NYC. We did 30 to 40 off-site events a year just to promote the restaurants in the Grand Valley. And you know, it worked. By 2020, I had my first James Beard nomination. Taco Party was busier than Bin 707 and has continued to grow since then. But had I not adopted the chef-driven approach and stepped into the public attention, Taco Party wouldn't exist. Also it wouldn't exist because we don't have food media here. And there's no reason to have food media here, because the economics of it just don't make sense. So on one hand, I think that Michelin, James Beard, and others are trying to find their way a little bit and trying to figure out how they should be more fair. But on the other hand, it has to be something that has a return for them, or it's a dead end street.

What I've tried to do here again is to have this culinary aesthetic for where we are in the world and to use that to prop that place, all restaurants, not just my restaurants, to a higher tier so that we can increase the amount of culinary tourism in Grand Valley. And I think that is a road map that works no matter where you are in the world. It may be a big part of the answer of how to make the rating groups and the awards groups a little bit more relevant in who they're giving praise to.


When I visited Bin 707 last year I was so impressed with the wine list. The thing that really stood out was the amount of Colorado wines offered. I have been to regions where restaurants may have 2-3 local wines and 50 wines from Napa and France, which is such a let down. How did you get so knowledgeable?

I spent a good amount of time while I was in Denver working front of house in some pretty high-end restaurants. I got into wine quite a bit, and honestly, I think I took my first introductory course in 2005 and became a certified Sommelier soon after.

But following my ethos of what we're trying to represent, I pretty quickly ran into some difficulties with what the Master Court of Sommeliers were requiring. So, when I came to the Grand Valley and opened the restaurants, it wasn't necessarily to showcase the best wines. It was to showcase the wines that we have to work with and to treat those wines as these agricultural products from the area. With such a young wine industry, I think my approach to wine here has always been to rather than serve something that's recognizable, to introduce our guests into something they wouldn't necessarily have given respect to otherwise.


How would you characterize the wines from the Grand Valley?

We have very, very hot summers. It's usually ended by an early freeze and it makes wine making here very difficult. It's always been sort of more of a labor of love than it has big business, which means that a lot of the wines being made are being made on bootstrap budgets. So we don't have a lot of really heavily-oaked wines with tons of French oak. We have wines that have a huge amount of temperature variance between the day and the night, between the beginning and the end of the growing season. And it really creates grapes that are interesting on their own. The change of the same grape through different vintages here is more prominent than really anywhere else that I've seen. From a terroir standpoint, I've always said that I really like Cab Franc from the Grand Valley. I think it grows really well, it's got this white peppercorn note that I think is really unique to the Grand Valley.


Any Final Words

JoJo's Dinette Window Sign

I just opened up my third restaurant called JoJo’s. The location is the old Bin 707 as Bin is moving to a new building. JoJo’s is a bit more mid-tier and approachable within the community. Taco Party will just keep cruising along like it is."


Click here to read the article on Forbes.com.