Project Angel Heart has been providing meals to Front Range residents dealing with life-threatening illnesses since 1991 — and executive chef Jon Emanuel has been the head of the kitchen for a good part of that time. Emanuel signed on with the nonprofit organization in 2005 and has helped oversee the growth of the program, which now serves more than 1,000 clients weekly meals designed for optimum nutrition for a variety of dietary needs. But the chef recently decided to purchase a bed-and-breakfast in Caledonia, Missouri, and will be leaving Project Angel Heart at the end of April.
During his tenure as executive chef, Emanuel helped the organization grow from 500 clients to its current size; to move from its original home at East 42nd Avenue and Garfield Street to its current, modern facility at 4950 Washington Street; and to implement nutritional analytics to ensure that meals delivered to clients improve quality of life.
Emanuel came to Project Angel Heart after a tenure as executive chef for the United States Antarctic Program, where he worked at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station for seven summer seasons. Although he loved the work, the yearly deployments were grueling, he says, so he began looking for more career options in teaching and nonprofit work. During one of his final Antarctic off-seasons, he joined Share Our Strength's Cooking Matters (then called Operation Frontline). "I was taken by the effect I could have teaching people," he says of the experience. During his time there, Emanuel was named chef of the year in 2005 by that organization and traveled with the nonprofit to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
When the position at Project Angel Heart opened, he leaped at the opportunity and landed the job the day before his seventh and final deployment to the Antarctic. Upon returning, he had two days of training with outgoing chef Mary Clark (co-founder of Bluepoint Bakery and former executive chef at Tante Louise) before he was on his own. "I was still jet-lagged from my deployment," Emanuel recalls.
"It took me about six months to become fluent in the dietary requirements," he explains, but he says that he felt very comfortable otherwise in the role from the beginning because of his high-volume cooking experience and because of Project Angel Heart's "tradition of feeding our clients good, tasty cuisine."
One of Emanuel's most moving moments over the past decade came when a client called to let him know that he'd be ending his food delivery, a rare call for the chef, since Project Angel Heart has a client-services team dedicated to handling such calls. But this client called because he had recovered and no longer needed the organization's service. "He told me, 'I wanted to let you know that I credit you with saving my life,'" the chef explains.
"I'm very proud of the fact that for the past ten years I've done something that has made the world a better place, I hope," he continues. "Plus, the staff here is great."
Those who have met Emanuel know that he's a big man with a big beard — and an even bigger heart. His physical demeanor is in line with someone who sought out the city's strangest foods as head of the Denver Adventurous Eaters Club and who enjoys playing heavy-metal bass when he's not in the kitchen. But he's also soft-spoken, self-effacing and quietly passionate, about both his work and his love of food.
"I hope that in about six months I am a fond but distant memory," he says of his role at Project Angel Heart. "Because this isn't Jon Emanuel's kitchen; it's Project Angel Heart's kitchen."
Although he's not in charge of hiring his replacement, he's optimistic that the organization has even bigger plans for the future. "We're hoping to lead the way in a lot of ways...to improve life for lots more people," he says. "An injection of fresh blood will be good for a lot of the new programs."
Emanuel had been planning on moving to Missouri with his wife several years from now; they have family land there and had a long-term goal of settling into a rural farm life. But a recent visit and a tour of a bed-and-breakfast that was for sale in the small town of Caledonia sped things up considerably. "As soon as I walked in, I said, 'Oh, shit, I should never have walked in here,'" he remembers.
The place was perfect, the price was right, and the town seemed to welcome them in the role of innkeepers. The couple closed on the bed-and-breakfast in November and plan to have the place up and running by Memorial Day — so Denver chefs and food lovers who know Emanuel's cooking will soon be putting Caledonia and the Old Caledonian Bed & Breakfast on the culinary map as a top vacation destination.
For those interested in supporting Project Angel Heart and its mission, the annual Dining Out for Life night is just around the corner. On Thursday, April 28, participating restaurants will donate 25 percent of sales to help fund the organization. More than 250 restaurants are signed up this year, which will also mark the first time that local breweries are participating. Last year, Dining Out for life raised $315,000. See Project Angel Heart's website for a list of participating restaurants and breweries so that you can find the right place to make your dining dollars matter.