Behind a Chef’s Mission to Create a Diverse and Stable Restaurant Industry
Tajahi Cooke is standing in a construction area. Ladders are scattered everywhere. Bare wires hang from the ceiling. A piece of wood that must be slid back and forth currently serves as the entrance door. It’s a cold day in January, and he’s checking on progress at Liberty Street Social, a 12,000 square foot food hall slated to open this month in northwest Arvada. Seen through Cooke’s gold-rimmed glasses, the work that remains to be done fades and he can see groups of friends lounging on mid-century velvet sofas; families gathered around contemporary wooden tables; and, if all goes as planned, hungry diners line up at the restaurant he will operate on Freedom Street.
A food hall will be a boon to the growing suburb. Nearby, homes line side-by-side like colorful Legos in planned communities with names like Whisper Creek and Candelas. They’re surrounded by vast swaths of open space, wildlife refuges, and lakes, but off-chain dining options are limited. Freedom Street aims to change that with eight restaurant concepts plus a bar and coffeeshop with an all-vinyl soundtrack.
Cooke is excited to bring high-quality, creative cuisine to the suburbs, but he also has a more personal mission: the 33-year-old chef wants to make the restaurant industry more inclusive and supportive. At Freedom Street, he will run Chef Kitchen, an incubator to nurture and introduce up-and-coming and new cooks to Denver on a rotating basis. “I believe that every restaurant should be an institute. You literally train young and old minds, guiding them along the way,” says Cooke. A decade into his career, Cooke is ready to pass on his hard-earned knowledge so that the chefs of tomorrow will be better prepared to create the diverse and stable industry he longed to enter.
Even if you are not familiar with Cooke’s name, you may have eaten his food. His resume over the past 10 years includes stints at Bacon Social House and the small curry shop and Biju block and pantry, now closed. He was also involved in the opening of two other food halls: Denver’s Broadway Market and Golden’s Tributary Food Hall & Drinkery. Although he enjoys working in restaurants, managing his frustration with an unsustainable industry has left him and many other chefs overworked and underpaid. “I was making about $44,000 a year running three restaurants,” says Cooke. “I had to argue, really fight, to get this.” He began to wonder: How can newbie cooks find a way to pay the bills and enjoy what they’re doing?
Chef Kitchen is a step towards answering this question. Chefs from here in Colorado, as well as from across the country and around the world, will be invited for month-long culinary residencies during which they will have full creative control over their menus; receive a guaranteed salary of $1,500 per week; have their food and labor costs covered (kitchen staff are provided, if needed); receiving mentorship from Cooke; and enjoy a platform from which they can grow their brands, build trust and experiment. “It’s an opportunity for chefs to be valued, to get paid what they’re supposed to. [be paid]”, says Cooke. “There is no opportunity like this right now.”
The project is funded by Freedom Street developers as well as restaurant food sales and residency launch events. (Freedom Street is the brainchild of former Marco’s Pizza franchise owners Nick and Amie Costanzo, who teamed up with partners Cameron Cummins, Jeff Kaplan and Jon Morgan to build the food hall.) Resident chefs will begin their work by leading a pair of supper club dinners ($100 to $125 per person) on the first Friday and Saturday of the month. Cooke and his wife, Danielle, began hosting similar pop-up events at a rotating slate of restaurants across the Front Range in early 2021; Freedom Street will be their new home.
“The pandemic has shone a light on just how upside down hospitality is and the models and measures that execute it,” says Gertie Harris, co-founder of Fireside at Five, which handles marketing for the food hall. With Chef Kitchen handling all the business aspects and removing the financial pressures, she says, “the details go away and it’s about the chef, the community, the menu and the storytelling, what hospitality should be about.”
Cooke plans to welcome up to 12 chefs each year, some of whom will be relative recruits; others will be established toques to test new concepts or introduce themselves to the Denver market. All will go through an application process. The main attribute Cooke is looking for: passion. “You can still see and taste the passion,” he says. “I want to see it on their plates.”
Among the food professionals already confirmed is Forest Ragar, the former executive chef of Denver’s Watercourse Foods, who worked with Cooke at Bacon Social House. Ragar is familiar with the conventional trajectory of chefs: cook for someone else, then try to impose your style through food trucks (he now operates one) and pop-ups, with no guarantees of money or support. Chef Kitchen offers this guarantee, if only for a short time. “Every chef, whether he cooked someone else’s menu or [making] something they think is hot – there’s something dormant that they love to eat and love to cook. This is magic; that’s what you want to share with the world,” Ragar says. “To have a format for it, a canvas for it, to make it more accessible…that’s something I want to be a part of.”
Another essential part of the Chef Kitchen cast is diversity. Cooke experienced firsthand what it was like to be a black chef working under predominantly white, male bosses. “The first time I worked for someone of my color and background, in my career, was at the Little Curry Shop in Biju,” he says. “Other than [owner Biju Thomas, who hails from South India], I have never seen another owner who looked like me, who was from where I was from. Chef Kitchen aims to increase representation in the industry. Cooke says, “I want this line of chefs to represent the world.”
Cooke knows how it would have been easy for his story to turn out differently. He understands that many children who grew up like him don’t succeed like him. Cooke grew up in Jamaica until she was nine years old, and her mother was in prison for much of her childhood. He grew up surrounded by violence on the island nation, and to keep him away from it, his father – a tour manager for big-name bands such as the Fugees and Michael Franti – began taking his son with him on travel trips. work all over the world. world. This opened up Cooke’s perspective and furthered his current mission. “I was a street kid,” Cooke says, before the people in his life showed him other options. With that in mind, the owners of Cooke and Freedom Street envision the venue not only as a haven for chefs, but also as a safe space for local school children. Cooke plans to use the food stand outside of mealtimes to teach cooking classes and host other events that provide teens with a positive outlet.
His explorations with his father were a learning experience. Luckily for diners, these forays will inspire the Breakfast Club menu, morning restaurant Cooke will also lack the Chef Kitchen space. He plays with dishes such as Bangladeshi coffee and Japanese soufflé pancakes.
Standing next to the Chef Kitchen space under construction in January, Cooke’s excitement is palpable. He’s energized by the opportunity to help others and make great food, but he’s also realistic about what a chef in a suburban Denver kitchen can do to help address systemic issues. of the restaurant industry. For him, Chef Kitchen exemplifies what could be: kitchens run by diverse teams who are fairly compensated and given the support and leadership they need to succeed. “I don’t expect this to change this profession that I love so much; I just want to get better,” Cooke said. “The restaurant industry is about adapting, innovating, moving forward and growing with the times we live in. It’s one of the ways to adapt to the times .”
(Read more: Pop-Up Advocacy Kitchen in Brutø shines a light on chef stories and social issues)