Chef News

Chef & Tell: Mimi Banish Helps Kids Cook at the Osage Cafe

Growth has put the spotlight on many previously depressed Denver neighborhoods, but La Alma-Lincoln Park, tucked into a stretch south of the Auraria campus, still rates little attention from those who live outside the area. Restaurant lovers are familiar with the Buckhorn Exchange and Japanese favorite Domo, of course, but the rest of the neighborhood isn’t much of a destination. That’s changing, though. Light rail makes a stop at Tenth Avenue and Osage Street, even though most commuters go through, not to, Lincoln Park. And over the past few years, the Denver Housing Authority has been replacing the South Lincoln public-housing complex with Mariposa, a development that includes subsidized, affordable and market-rate condos and apartments as well as retail space. One of those spaces is occupied by Osage Cafe, run by chef Mimi Banish, who heads a kitchen crew of kids from the DHA’s Youth Employment Academy.

Osage Cafe, a freestanding nonprofit entity created by the DHA, isn’t exactly a destination eatery, but it provides a sorely needed service in a project that will see a jump from 250 to 900 housing units by the time construction is complete. The cafe is also the authority’s most advanced employment academy, offering classes and on-the-job training to low-income and at-risk youth. Serving breakfast and lunch from a simple menu of popular items, the kitchen’s primary challenge isn’t pushing the limits of cuisine, but rather pushing the young staffers to learn and grow as both employees and members of the community.

Banish’s love for food, cooking and mentoring started far from the inner city. She grew up near Salt Lake City, and a big part of her childhood was spent on her grandparents’ farm in the foothills above the suburbs there. She and her brother baked pies with their grandmother — “She would send me out to pick raspberries, and I would just sit there and eat them,” Banish remembers — and helped their grandfather barbecue. As Banish grew older and more independent, her mother still insisted that she make it to weekly family dinners. “She told us she’d better see us at three o’clock every Sunday — dinner was at four — no matter how many people we showed up with.”

And despite now living hundreds of miles away, Banish still manages to cook with her mom. “I call her and ask, ‘How do you make candy?’” she says. “And I’m making it with her on the phone.”

Although she was surrounded by good food and family dining traditions growing up, Banish fell into cooking as a career almost by mistake. “I never thought I would do this,” she explains. “It was kind of an accident: I signed up for the wrong class in high school.”
Instead of a standard home-economics class, she found herself in a cooking class geared toward entry-level work...and discovered she liked it. She got her first job busing tables and realized the restaurant business held real appeal. So after graduation, she looked around for a good fit for a culinary education, eventually deciding on Johnson & Wales University. “I moved to Denver a week before my nineteenth birthday — and stayed,” she says. “I love it here; it’s a real city.”

After graduating from JWU with a degree in sports/entertainment/event management, she worked in several Denver restaurants, including the Cork House and the Broker, as a sous-chef and front-of-the-house manager, then worked her way up the ladder at Epicurean Catering. When the job as general manager and head chef at Osage Cafe opened up, Banish realized it was the kind of spot she’d been looking for all along. “I worked for the big bad corporate entity, and it’s nice to work for the little guy,” she explains. “I get to grow and help the kids grow.” Working with young adults — the program currently has students ranging from seventeen to 22 years old (although scholarships are available for those as young as fifteen) — wasn’t something she initially set out to do, but fifteen months into the job, she definitely recognizes the rewards. “They pick up on the littlest things when you don’t realize they’re watching you,” she notes.

Classes consist of a 48-hour program over three weeks, as well as 160 hours of restaurant work covering everything from washing dishes to cooking on the line to working the front of the house. Continued employment at the cafe is an option, but Banish encourages her charges to seek regular employment at other restaurants once they have completed the curriculum. Those who finish the program earn ServSafe accreditation, a national food-safety certification from the National Restaurant Association that helps them land jobs in the food-service industry. The cafe also offers catering (mostly corporate lunches, but also graduations, birthdays and even weddings), so students learn how to run events and work with customers to come up with menus. Because Osage Cafe is a training academy with only two adults — Banish and assistant general manager Courtney Thomas — catering clients enjoy lower prices than they would pay standard catering companies.

Banish prefers a real-life setting to a classroom environment, even for the instructional part of the academy. Her classes are mostly hands-on in the kitchen, covering basic techniques like knife skills and sautéing. And she encourages students to cook in their own kitchens as homework, explaining that even if you never work in a restaurant, you still have to eat every day — and cooking for yourself is not only cheaper and healthier, but it helps build a family bond. “Sometimes kids have a hard time talking to their parents,” she says. “I tell them to cook them something. Don’t tell them you’re doing it — just hand them a plate of food.”

She also exposes the students to different ingredients, encouraging them to taste herbs and spices in their raw form and then after cooking. “I let them mess up, too, to show how it affects the recipe,” she adds. “And I tell them there are two things you can’t say in a kitchen: ‘Eff you’ and ‘I’m outta here.’ You can, but you won’t work in that place again.”

But Banish stresses the fun and bonding that occurs in professional kitchens as much as the hard work and education. She regularly holds competitions, most recently in the form of Chopped-style challenges. The kids have come up with Philly cheese-steak breakfast sandwiches, egg rolls and taco salads; dishes they perfect can even make it onto the cafe’s menu. Aside from the regular menu of breakfast burritos, sandwiches and soups, the weekly specials menu comes from the students. Seeing those students move on to professional cooking jobs is one of the rewards for Banish. They’ve earned jobs in food service at Denver Public Schools, Ted’s Montana Grill, Panera, Chipotle and Mad Greens. One of her current students is still in high school, but landed a job at the Berkshire in Stapleton and continues to work at Osage on Saturdays.

One of Banish’s proudest moments came at Ace Eat Serve last summer, when Osage Cafe won the People’s Choice Award at the Wings and Whiskey challenge, beating out competition from TAG, Elway’s, Central Bistro and even wing specialists Fire on the Mountain. “And we only lost the judge’s choice by a few votes,” she points out.

Days at the cafe aren’t always easy. Money is tighter than in corporate kitchens, but that suits Banish’s DIY attitude: “Sometimes I have to MacGyver things together,” she jokes. She teaches her students how to be economical not only with budgets, but also with their emotions — handling stress collectively and coming back together after disagreements.

And even when stress runs high — as when big catering orders threaten to go awry — Banish manages to turn potential disasters into teaching opportunities. “They realize we can work together even after everyone loses their temper,” she says. “I show them and they show me, and we learn from each other.” 

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Mark Antonation is the former Westword Food & Drink Editor. In 2018, he was named Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association; he's now with the Colorado Restaurant Foundation.
Contact: Mark Antonation