An eager crowd perched on folding chairs surrounding a makeshift kitchen at the Bo Matthews Center, enthralled by the scents of cinnamon-infused hot apple cider and the enthusiastic voices of chef Keith Denard Jones, spinning comical yarns about his past, and chef Joseph Westley, speaking about his future. After years of working for other restaurants (his last gig was as executive chef of Peoria Bar & Grill at Timbers Hotel), Westley now plans to open his own establishment, called JB Cuisine, at Washington and Glenarm streets, in the heart of the Five Points neighborhood.
"It's an intimate group tonight, so everybody gets dinner-sized portions," Jones promised. At which point someone in the back hollered, "Lock the doors!"
Jones, author of Cooking Up Your Dreams and host of the weekly show "Eatertainment" on R&R TV (www.rrtv.com), travels from city to city, speaking at schools about how to eat healthy, cook healthy and "love every minute of the beneficial world of a healthy lifestyle."
The cooking demonstration began at 6 p.m., and Westley told the crowd, "Keith is the show guy -- I'm the production guy." While he attended to food preparation and ladled out cups of cider, Jones had the guests pitching forward in their chairs with his stories of how, as a kid in a huge Detroit public school, he was dragged kicking and screaming into a home economics class, thus beginning his culinary career. It got better in high school, he confided, where the ratio of girls to boys was nine to one, and the girls were taking notice of his cooking prowess. At that revelation, a female voice from the back queried, "Are you married?," which was followed by plenty of whoops and whistles from the audience. "We'll talk later, around eight," he said, grinning. The class was slated to wrap up at 8 p.m.
The tantalizing aromas steaming up from the chafing dishes were of seasoned grilled chicken medallions, zesty Creole sauce and moist squares of grilled polenta flavored with fresh herbs and bits of smoked turkey. Jones, sporting a colorful teal and black uniform rather than the traditional black and white checks -- "That's how I roll," he explained -- sautéed a large pan of bright, fresh spinach to top off the meat, starch and sauce.
"Soul food takes time," he said. "That's why we're using spinach instead of collards tonight." He went on to describe how he never used to be able to find greens like collards, turnip and mustard in conventional stores, but as tastes change and people become more health-conscious and more aware of the benefits of buying leafy greens, they are now widely available. "I had to call my mom and tell her I found turnip greens at the King Soopers!" he exclaimed.
Then Jones flipped the script and asked the crowd, "What do you do when life is uncertain?" Audience members looked at each other quizzically, and Jones encouraged them to just shout out their answers: "Pray," "Move forward," "Drink."
"Life is uncertain," Jones tossed out, "so start with dessert." This was Westley's cue to grab his pastry bag and put tiny rosettes of whipped cream and sprinkles of gingerbread crumbs onto individual soufflé cups of pumpkin panna cotta, which everyone enthusiastically scooped up. The top layer of custard was silky, lightly sweet, and the underlying pumpkin layer had a snappy ginger bite to it.
By the time the dessert was distributed and devoured, Westley had the main course plated; each dish was neatly portioned with a thick slice of polenta topped with chicken, a scoop of rich sauce, and a dab of spinach.
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While the audience was milling around complimenting the chefs, District 11 City Councilman and Denver mayoral candidate Michael Hancock stopped in to shake a few hands and enjoy a plate of food.
The soul-food tasting was well received, and it whetted appetites for Westley's new restaurant. "We're starting construction this month," he said. "It'll be an upscale, full-service restaurant with a full bar." And since it's about 4,000 feet away from the nearest school, he added, there should be no problem with the liquor license. He promised a menu full of comfort food: "Beef, potatoes, salmon and grits, steaks, wine selection, jazz music, and instead of Sunday brunch, we'll have a Sunday supper."
Anyone who got a taste of his food at this event can't wait.