For many people who work in Denver's City & County Building, the basement cafeteria is a feared, last-resort stop. But Jacques Yang, the cafeteria's new chef, is out to change that. He sees it as the perfect spot for a homestyle meal, one that can sustain a person through a long day in court. He sees the cafeteria as a natural gathering place, where colleagues can share the latest news as well as dessert. He sees the cafeteria -- newly christened Jacques Cafe -- as a way to get past his disability and on with his life.
Yang is legally blind. A decade ago, he lost the bulk of his sight to angioid streaks, a retinal disorder that blurs his world. "I look at you, it's like looking at you through grease paper," Yang says.
But despite his disability -- and the handicap of taking on a below-ground space with an even lower reputation -- Yang's food is winning fans at City Hall. "He has made a tremendous change here," says Isaac Diggins Sr., a court security guard and cafe regular. "The food doesn't taste like hospital food anymore. He has healthy sandwiches, roast turkey -- the real thing -- and bacon that tastes like bacon."
"I've been here going on fourteen years," says Rita Martinez, a cashier at Jacques Cafe. "He's the best cook we've had. Everybody says that."
"The food here used to be what we call 'slap-on food,'" Yang explains. "Processed food, from the can, nothing cooked from scratch. I cook everything from scratch."
But Yang's not bashing his predecessors. Since 1994, the City & County Building cafeteria has been run by vendors from the Business Enterprise Program, a federal/state operation that gives vocational training to the visually impaired. The chef he replaced had even worse vision, Yang says, which made it hard to run the kitchen. "By the grace of God, I still have enough eyesight to do what I need to do."
And what he does is amazing. One recent menu boasted such ambitious entrees (each just $4.75) as roasted turkey served with mashed potatoes and cornbread; spaghetti Bolognese made with ground beef and veal; and Irish lamb stew with roasted red potatoes and a side of corn fritters. A few Fridays ago, the lunch special was stuffed-crust pizza built from Yang's made-from-scratch dough, with a cup of chicken gumbo. "I know pizza is cooked when the smell coming out is a certain intensity," Yang says. "My sense of smell is fantastic."
Early risers now stop in at 6:30 a.m., when the cafe opens, to enjoy Yang's $2 breakfast burritos and homemade biscuits and gravy. "Very popular," Yang says, grinning. So are most of his dishes: In just three months, he's doubled the cafeteria's business.
Born in Hong Kong, the fifty-something Yang is the son of a British-Chinese father and a French mother who practiced classical French cooking. He moved to Scotland after high school and earned a biochemistry degree at the University of Edinburgh. In the late '70s, he moved to this country, where he worked in the pharmaceutical trade. But ten years ago, he developed the angioid streaks that had already clouded the sight of his grandfather and sister.
When he lost his vision, he also lost a career. So Yang signed up for the Business Enterprise Program. After training in the cafeteria of the University of California at Davis, he went on to run a string of state-supported cafeterias in California. Last year, he took over the Colorado health department's cafeteria at its Glendale headquarters, then moved on to the City & County Building.
Diana Huerta is director of the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation for Colorado's Department of Human Services, which works with BEP vendors. Chefs in the program vie for various locations by submitting business plans, she explains; the jobs are awarded based on the soundness of those plans. Vendors give 13 percent of their sales back to BEP to fund a program that gives sight-impaired people a chance in a competitive world, Huerta says, "a chance to live the great American dream that everyone wants to live."
And Yang's making the most of that chance. "He's an energetic individual, passionate about food service," Huerta says. "He enjoys the business and truly wants to make the customer happy."
To keep those customers happy, Yang works twelve-hour days, from 4:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The cafeteria is closed on weekends, but Yang comes in after church on Sunday to do prep work for the next week's meals. So far, the biggest obstacle he's encountered is the kitchen's humble equipment. "It's a miracle that I can do this with half an oven and six electric burners," Yang says, pointing to his vintage cooking gear. "It's like World War II."
"People don't realize we have one hand tied behind our back here," adds David Duco, Yang's assistant.
Yang has put in a request for a grill top and deep fryer, but it's unlikely he'll get either any time soon. "Not with the budgets the way they are," says Margo Blu, who oversees the cafeteria contract for the City & County Building and notes that the space also lacks the proper gas lines and ventilation for such equipment.
Although she can't do much to help outfit Yang's kitchen, Blu says she's thrilled by what's coming out of it. "We've had varying levels of service," she says of the BEP vendors. "Jacques is hands down the best of the blind operators that we've had. We're happy to have him."
Like many of her co-workers, she's become a Jacques Cafe regular. "I keep telling people, 'Go over there and try it," Blu says. "It's new; it's so much better now."
Many people have to eat the food before they'll believe that. "I tell people I work here," Duco says, "and they go, 'In the basement?' It's so hard to change people's perceptions when they've been ingrained for so long."
But perceptions are changing. People from nearby buildings have started heading to City Hall at lunchtime. Judges who once sent juries to neighboring eateries now have the courage to direct them to the city's cafeteria.
Bert Thomas, an employee in the Denver City Attorney's Office, appreciates Yang's efforts. "He's cooking collard greens and cornbread; he's trying to show off," Thomas says, eliciting another smile from Yang. "I'm from Mississippi. I told him, 'Cornbread? Dude, you don't know nothing about cornbread.' He does. He makes bread pudding like grandma makes."
That's because he cooks it with love. "I love cooking. I love people," Yang explains. "Cooking is a very creative art. You produce something from basic raw ingredients, you get very satisfied."
Finding satisfaction in such a modest setting would be tough for Denver's more temperamental chefs, but it's easy for Yang. "It's good to have a fancy restaurant with a bar," he says. "But here I get to know the people in the building. They become your close family when you serve them good food with reasonable prices. Your circle of friends enlarges."
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.