"I don't cook when I'm angry," says Kidist Woldemariam, though it's hard to picture the chef behind ghost-kitchen concept Shiro on the Go ever being mad. Her beaming smile is ever-present as she talks about how she began serving Ethiopian cuisine out of the maze-like CloudKitchens facility at 810 Vallejo Street.
"My biggest goal is to teach my culture and elevate it," Woldemariam explains. Born in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, she was adopted by a Colorado family in 2006 after her mother passed away — but the flavors of her mother's cooking never strayed from her memory.
Longing to taste the dishes she missed from home, Woldemariam began making meals for her adopted family and sharing Ethiopian food with friends who noticed how happy cooking made her. "That's my purpose — feeding the people I love," she says. Woldemariam planned to go to beauty school, but one of those well-fed friends intervened, secretly enrolling her in the culinary program at the now-defunct Art Institute of Colorado and surprising the soon-to-be-chef with the news.
It was a perfect fit. Woldemariam graduated from the program and went out into the world with a new set of professional cooking skills. Not quite knowing how to begin her career, she turned to the Job Corps, where officials told her she wasn't eligible for their programs because she'd surpassed that level of training — but they were able to land her a job working for a Jamaican chef at a catering company. After that entry into professional cooking, she secured her first restaurant job at P.F. Chang's, where she worked for six years.
Although Woldemariam enjoyed cooking, grinding day after day on the line of a chain restaurant wasn't exactly inspiring. A job at Departure changed that.
The Departure team inspired passion. "They were very particular," Woldemariam says of the crew led by Top Chef alum Gregory Gourdet. "I learned the discipline of being a chef, but also, everyone there really loved their job." After Departure closed, that culinary spark helped prepare Woldemariam for her next challenge, which came when someone in her inner circle approached her with an idea.
Like the friend who kick-started Woldemariam's move into professional cooking, Adel Eshetu had enjoyed her cooking for years. Born in Yemen, Eshetu moved to Colorado in 2006 at the age of twelve. He became interested in the concept of ghost kitchens three years ago, long before they became a pandemic buzzword in the U.S. In Middle Eastern countries, he explains, ghost kitchens are popular because they give people living in high-density areas access to many dining options in an environment short on available space for stand-alone restaurants.
Eshetu wanted to bring more ghost-kitchen concepts to Denver. He was excited by the idea of being able to start a business with low overhead costs, and he knew exactly who he wanted cooking the food there.
The chance to share her mother's legacy through dishes from her childhood was an opportunity that Woldemariam couldn't pass up. The two friends, along with Eshetu's mother, Fathia Mohammad (better known as the cook behind what both call "the best rice ever"), quietly launched Shiro on the Go in March.
Shiro, a chickpea stew, is an Ethiopian staple. "Every Ethiopian house has shiro; it's the most famous dish. It's the cheapest to make, but it's also the best-tasting," Woldemariam says, explaining that as a dish for everyone, regardless of income or background, shiro was the ideal namesake for the concept.
Before actually moving into the ghost kitchen, Woldemariam began developing recipes and formulating a menu, cooking and selling food out of her small studio apartment. Once they secured a spot at CloudKitchens, a company backed by Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick that opened its Denver facility in January, Woldemariam and Eshetu intentionally started slow. They offered pick-up only, relying on word of mouth to drum up business, beginning with their own friends and families. In early June, they added delivery through Uber Eats and Grubhub; they hope to offer DoorDash soon. "We're learning every day," Eshetu says.
So what's on the menu? Shiro, of course, as part of the popular veggie platter that also includes lentils with a spicy kick, a bright-red mix of beets and potatoes (qasir), kale (goman), and tangy, sponge-like injera made with flour from the teff grain (so it's gluten-free). "One thing we want people to know is that you don't have to sacrifice flavor to eat vegan or vegetarian," Eshetu explains, noting that many traditional Ethiopian dishes just happen to be vegetarian. "It's the kind of food you feel energized by after eating."
Along with offering other traditional Ethiopian dishes, including the popular chicken wot, Woldemariam is experimenting with new ways to introduce people to the flavors of her home country, such as hand-breaded boneless chicken wings made with berbere, a spice blend of chiles, coriander, garlic, fenugreek and warm spices like cinnamon. She's also turned veggie-platter staples into super-snackable egg rolls stuffed with mozzarella cheese, best enjoyed with a dipping sauce like cooling cilantro lime or spicy house sauce. You can even get a taste of Eshetu's mom's "best ever" turmeric rice with such entree options as coconut honey chicken with red lentils.
As the Denver dining scene continues its fast-paced post-pandemic comeback, there's some concern about the viability of the ghost-kitchen model. Will people still order pick-up and delivery when they can instead eat in a dining room or on a patio? Eshetu isn't sure. But for the team behind Shiro on the Go, the setup is the best, and most affordable, way to get to their goal.
"It's more than food," Eshetu says. For him and Woldemariam, it's a way to share their cultures, connect with others and make their mothers proud.
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