When Tim Bender left his position as executive chef at Comal Heritage Food Incubator earlier this spring, the nonprofit restaurant, operated by Focus Points Family Resource Center, began its search for a new leader to head the restaurant, which also acts as a training program for immigrant women in Globeville and Elyria-Swansea who hope to open their own food businesses. They found the right candidate in Arden Lewis, a Brooklyn native who recently moved to Colorado.
Lewis's parents hail from Trinidad and Tobago, and he explains that food and cooking were an integral part of family life and social gatherings when he was growing up. But he didn't choose a culinary career at first; instead, he went into information technology, working for Goldman Sachs for eight years before the call of the kitchen became too strong. So he followed his passion, went back to school at the French Culinary Institute (which has since become the International Culinary Center) and embarked on a new career that landed him in some of New York City's top restaurants and then, most recently, as a chef/partner in a Brooklyn catering company.
The chef moved to Denver just two months ago to be with his girlfriend, who was accepted to graduate school here. He says he had heard about Comal's unique mission while living in Brooklyn, but it wasn't until after he had arrived in Colorado that he found out the restaurant was hiring, and he immediately realized it was a great fit for the direction he wanted to take professionally.
"That was the first thing that attracted me — the mission of Comal," Lewis explains. "The social impact of it and the cross-cultural learning and impacting lives, and where they go after this."
The chef also sees the new job as a place to learn and grow, since he'll be working with cooks from Mexico, Syria and Ethiopia to begin with, and hopefully with women from other cultures soon, too. "The challenge of learning is what attracted me," he notes. "I like not knowing everything."
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As an example, Lewis points out that he'd never pressed corn tortillas until his first week on the job, and he'd never made gorditas. The population of Mexican immigrants in Colorado, he continues, is different than in New York City, so he's already learning more about regional differences in Mexican cuisine. "I like the relationship of food and culture — how people communicate through food and how it brings people together," he adds.
Lewis has traveled extensively to study and eat food from cultures all over the world, from the floating markets of Bangkok to family dinners in Morocco. Most recently, he's turned his attention to the Western hemisphere, studying wood-fired cooking traditions in Argentina and Yucatecan dishes in Mexico.
This month's Comal Impact Dinner will be Lewis's coming-out party for supporters of the restaurant and Focus Points. The chef will be teaming up with Comal chef Genet Gebeye for a four-course Ethiopian dinner at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, June 19. Tickets, available on Comal's Evenbrite page, start at $75 for dinner and beverage pairings. For $125, VIP guests will get additional bites and drinks at the chef's counter.
Comal Heritage Food Incubator is located at 3455 Ringsby Court in the TAXI development and is open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Mexican specialties are served for lunch Monday through Thursday, and Syrian cuisine is served on Fridays. Call 303-292-0770 for more details.