Food News

Denver Restaurateurs Embrace Philanthropy as a Business Model

As a restaurant critic, I’m often considering minutiae. Was the steak overcooked? Was the server informed? How were the scallops plated? These details aren’t insignificant; taken together, they determine which restaurants are worthy of our most precious commodities — i.e., time and money. But I often wish I could judge a restaurant not just on its food, setting and service, but what it’s doing for the greater good. And so as 2016 ends, I want to salute six local restaurants/restaurateurs that give back not only during the holidays, but year-round.

We’ve come to expect big things from Jennifer Jasinski. Her restaurants — Rioja, Bistro Vendôme, Euclid Hall and Stoic & Genuine — rank among the best in the city. She received a James Beard award for Best Chef Southwest and was named a semi-finalist in the Outstanding Chef category, two of the industry’s highest honors. She cooked her way to the finals of Top Chef Masters. Little wonder, then, that she approaches philanthropy with the same drive. A longtime advocate of Work Options for Women, Jasinski donated her $35,000 winnings from Top Chef Masters to this Denver-based organization that lifts women out of poverty by training them for careers in the food-service industry. But this fall, she put the spotlight on another issue: food waste.

According to global estimates, one-third of all food gets thrown away, a gross injustice considering that one billion people live in hunger. Much of it is tossed out before it ever hits a plate, with produce left unharvested, cast aside for cosmetic reasons or discarded thanks to overly conservative use-by dates.
Using just this sort of produce — including 1,400 pounds gleaned from Grant Farms and Denver Botanic Gardens Chatfield Farms, and another 1,700 collected by We Don’t Waste — Jasinski and more than a hundred volunteers peeled, chopped and stirred together enough Madras curry to serve thousands of people. And then Jasinski helped serve the dish at Feeding the 5000, a free, one-day food festival in Skyline Park; what wasn’t served that day was given to the Denver Rescue Mission. Even for a chef who’s been trained to view ingredients as money, Jasinski says the event changed the way she thinks about food. “Now I think about how many nights I’ll be home for dinner,” she says. “How much milk do I need? Will I really eat those raspberries? Consumers at home can make the biggest difference.”

When Josh Wolkon first got into the industry, philanthropy “wasn’t on my radar,” he admits. “Then you realize how many requests you get every day.” Over the past twenty years, his restaurant group, which includes Vesta, two locations of Steuben’s and Ace Eat Serve, has supported more than a hundred organizations, some in long-lasting, high-impact partnerships. At Vesta, for example, his staff has been throwing a benefit for Urban Peak, a nonprofit focusing on homeless youth, for more than a decade. This past October, the party raised more than $30,000, adding to the nearly half-million that’s been donated to that particular cause over the years.

Wolkon approaches giving both seriously and creatively. This past year, for example, Steuben’s launched a program called Round Uptown. Guests at the restaurant’s Uptown location are invited to round their checks up, with amounts matched up to $2,500. Each quarter, that has allowed Steuben’s to give approximately $5,000 to organizations of the staff’s choosing, including the Humane Society and Delaney Donates, a nonprofit for families battling cancer. Philanthropy “brings your purpose as a restaurant to a higher level than the people in your doors,” Wolkon says.

Elise Wiggins is no stranger to big fundraisers. The longtime chef at Panzano has hosted dinners for Sense of Security and been a regular face at Denver Food + Wine’s annual benefit for Colorado ProStart for more than a decade. But what she’s best known for, besides her dedication to Italian cuisine, is her personal approach to giving. Rather than offering a standard $50 or $100 gift certificate, Wiggins prefers to donate cooking classes for up to sixteen people. “I don’t even blink an eye to donate for somebody doing an auction,” says the chef, who contributes roughly 36 classes per year. This practice will continue at Cattivella, her authentic, wood-fired-Italian restaurant opening in Stapleton this spring, which is good news for organizations around town — and the lucky guests who’ll enjoy a class in her new kitchen.

Whitney and Obe Ariss don’t see a distinction between the Preservery, the restaurant/market they opened last spring, and their philanthropic endeavors. Instead, they see one entity that can and should make the world a better place. So while the Preservery offers programs that fall within the category of charitable giving — including Five Percent Giveback Thursdays, when 5 percent of dinner sales are given to local causes (currently the RiNo Art District) and a similar program in the market — the couple also strives to strengthen the community by simply making employees’ lives better. The restaurant operates under a no-tipping model, and employees — not just managers — are given benefits and living wages. Even the dishwasher is compensated well above the current minimum wage of $8.31 and higher than the $12 that will ultimately be reached in 2020 under Amendment 70. “We didn’t want to start a business to make money,” Whitney explains, “but to have a business that could bolster other people.”

At Comal, a new lunch restaurant serving the cuisines of Mexico and El Salvador, success isn’t judged by the quality of the food, though the kitchen puts out a mean plate of estofado. A partnership between Focus Points Family Resource Center and Zeppelin Development, this eatery in RiNo’s Taxi development is equal parts restaurant, heritage-food incubator and training facility. The goal, says Slavica Park, Focus Points director of economic and workforce development, is “helping our women entrepreneurs to eventually launch their own businesses.” Park is also exploring similar programs in retail and deconstruction.

Comal, which means “griddle” in Spanish, is staffed by an initial cohort of eight women, all immigrants and residents of the community, under the supervision of executive chef Tim Bender, previously of Black Pearl and Opus. From Monday to Thursday, trainees work in the kitchen preparing family recipes, making Comal a showcase for the kind of authentic fare rarely seen outside of homes. Fridays are devoted to classes on topics such as finance, marketing and business licensing. Grants and restaurant sales make it possible to pay participants for their time, with 60 percent of profits going to the women and 40 percent to operating costs. Park — herself an immigrant with a background in organizational development and experience starting workplace-readiness programs — sees yet another role for Comal: as a bridge between the white and Latino cultures that make up the rapidly gentrifying RiNo neighborhood. Over time, she hopes to offer Spanish and cooking classes in the space.

Fifteen years ago, the farm-to-table movement swept through commercial kitchens, leaving us with seasonally driven menus and asterisks about heirloom vegetables grown up the road, or at least someplace closer than California. Over time, however, shout-outs to local farmers were replaced by the next big thing: kale, cauliflower steaks, you name it. But instead of moving on, the owners of the Squeaky Bean dug deeper. What started in 2008 as a few raised beds near the original restaurant has grown into a three-acre garden at Warren Tech High School that not only supplies the Squeaky Bean with organic produce but also integrates into S2TEM, culinary, JTS (Jefferson Transition Services) and Metropolitan State University urban-ag programs.

“We’re a model,” says Josh Olsen, a trained chef and Squeaky Bean partner who manages Acres, as the farm is called. “We’re showing that education and agriculture and working with the community and restaurants are possible.” Tapping teaching skills he picked up as a sous-chef training other cooks on the line, Olsen says he works with 140 students in the programs, helping them understand nutrition and where their food comes from. And if that’s not enough, he’s starting a pilot program to supply two Jefferson County schools with produce, writing grants to build aquaponic and soil-based greenhouses in order to supply even more Jeffco schools, and talking of building a community garden on the property. Next month he’ll sit down with chefs on the Acres advisory board to hear what produce they’d like him to grow, and he’ll continue to sell at farmers’ markets next season.

“It’s deeper than education,” he says. “These are life lessons.”
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Gretchen Kurtz has worked as a writer for 25 years; during that time she's stomped grapes in Napa, eaten b'stilla in Fez, and baked with Buddy Valastro, aka the Cake Boss. Her work has appeared in publications including Boulevard (Paris), Diversion, the New York Times and Westword. Our restaurant critic since 2012, she loves helping you decide where to eat and drink tonight.
Contact: Gretchen Kurtz