Comal Heritage Food Incubator opened at the TAXI development in RiNo in October 2016 as more than just a restaurant; it was designed by Focus Points Family Resource Center as a place for immigrant women in the Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods to learn about professional food service and business ownership while serving the food of their culture to customers stopping in for lunch. Since Comal's first day, chef Tim Bender has been in charge of overseeing the culinary program and helping the women in the program reach their full potential as cooks and aspiring entrepreneurs.
But Bender is leaving Comal at the end of April, marking his exit with a farewell Comal Impact Dinner, the monthly fundraiser feasts put on by the culinary team. Bender says that after nearly three years in the position, he's ready to hand over the program to a new chef. "But just because I'm leaving doesn't mean it has to stop," he explains. "In fact, it has to get better."
Bender looks back at his time with Comal as a period of growth for both the organization and himself. "I had been doing all this random stuff," he says of his career before Comal, which included stints at Masterpiece Kitchen, Black Pearl and Red Square. "When the program started, I was the first chef they called...but when I showed up, I couldn't even find the place."
But over time, Bender helped Comal go from a hidden lunch spot to a beacon on the banks of the Platte River, drawing recognition even as it expanded from Mexican cuisine to the food of El Salvador, Syria and Ethiopia, with the participation of women in the community from those countries. "Growth was gradual at first, and then the catering business took off," the chef recalls. "And then Top Chef showed up, and news channels, magazines and government agencies."
The catering arm of Comal was a boon to the students in the program, according to Bender, since many of them aspired to open their own catering businesses or food trucks. He notes that about half of the original group of thirteen women have "either left and started their own business or are right there about to." And two Syrian cooks, Sara Nassr and Vian Alnidawi, caught the attention of Safta chef/owner Alon Shaya, who brought the two to the South Beach Wine and Food Festival in Florida and then signed them on as part of the opening team of his restaurant, which debuted at the nearby Source Hotel last summer.
Even those who aren't in a position to become business owners have benefited, and Comal, through Focus Points' director of education and economic opportunity, Slavica Park, has created scholarships to provide financial assistance to those who are close. But a job at Comal is also a steady source of income for those looking to get their foot in the door. "It's a safe place, it's a place to learn, and if you're in the right spot, it's more," Bender notes.
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The chef says Focus Points has recently started looking for a new executive chef to take his place. "It should be someone passionate, not selfish, someone with a mission," he points out. He'd also like to see someone who can help the women in the program explore the history of their cultures' cuisines to bring back dishes that may have been lost over time or have become rare.
"But I'm never going to just go away," he adds, stating that he plans to go into consulting but will always be available to provide guidance. "I've given all my knowledge and experience to them — that's the job of a chef."
Bender's last Comal Impact Dinner will be at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 23, at 3455 Ringsby Court. Tickets are still available through the end of today (Thursday, April 11) for $60, but the price will go up to $75 starting April 12. Each course will be prepared by a different Comal participant, "paying homage to the techniques they've learned under [Bender's] guidance while spanning multiple cultures and styles of cuisine," according to the restaurant. Find more information and purchase tickets on the Impact Dinner page on Eventbrite.