Early last Saturday morning, around 4 a.m., the Denver restaurant community, inexplicably -- sadly -- lost one of its own. Curtis Caldwell, the sous chef of Vesta Dipping Grill, passed away at Denver Health following complications from an infection that blocked his airways. Caldwell, who spent five years at Vesta, was on life support for seven days before his family made the heart-wrenching decision to let him go, and this last week, needless to say, has been extraordinarily difficult for those of us who knew and loved him.
Caldwell, who was all of 33-years-old when he passed away, was renowned for having, among other attributes, the best facial hair of any chef in Denver, and last week, when I sat with him in the hospital, stroking his soft beard and praying for a miracle, I was reminded that it wasn't the first time I'd done that. Late last summer, I joined Caldwell and several other chefs on a farm tour -- we explored apple orchards and fields of crops and paddled canoes across the lake -- and I rubbed my hands against his beard then, too. He never seemed to mind.
And as so many others have reflected on his living Facebook page, Caldwell was a huge supporter of philanthropic efforts, an advocate of gay and lesbian rights, a hula-hoop wizard and a magician -- literally -- who lived live to the fullest; he was a free spirit whose laugh was infectious, and whose heart was was bigger than his body.
"His heart was huge...he was so giving," says former Vesta Dipping Grill exec chef Matt Selby, who hired Caldwell, initially as an a.m. prep cook. "I remember the first time I interviewed him -- he was late, and I have a rule that if you're late for an interview, I'm not going to hire you -- but before I could even say anything, he apologized and said he was sorry if he was wasting my time," recalls Selby. "He offered no excuses, and he was so professional and articulate...I was blown away. He conducted himself beautifully, he spoke from the heart, which is what he always did, and that one interview convinced me that I had to work with this guy, who quickly became a part of our family."
A family that was cultivated by Josh Wolkon, the owner of Vesta Dipping Grill, Ace and Steuben's, where Caldwell had also done time behind the line. "Curtis was a warm, kindhearted person who in his own subtle way managed to touch a lot of people in his five years at Vesta," says Wolkon. Caldwell was known for his desserts, he adds, including "the legendary peanut butter cup," not to mention his popular Monday night supper menu, which he created in collaboration with sous chef Andrew Hall.
"He was an educator to the staff; he was our representative at Greener Eat Denver; and he led our company's mission to be environmentally conscience -- he was an advocate for Denver B-Cycle," remembers Wolkon. Caldwell, he says, also taught kids how to cook, volunteering his time -- and expertise -- at Dream Big Day Camp.
"Curtis brought an energy and enthusiasm to Vesta that was unlike anyone else," echos Brandon Foster, now the executive chef at Vesta. "I will forever miss him painting peanut butter cups, scolding me for drinking out of a speed pour, occasionally prepping way too much of something, the inquisitive 8 a.m. text asking who did the order the night before...him just being him. With his passing, we lost an amazing part of our team, not only at Vesta but also in the Denver restaurant community as a whole," he adds.
"Curtis is a great example of the many unsung heroes that make a successful restaurant tick," says Wolkon, "and while he wasn't in the spotlight, for five years he kept the sauces fresh, the desserts creative, and he was responsible for countless other intangible details of keeping a restaurant kitchen running."
Selby expresses those same sentiments -- and more. "After I said my goodbye, I was a wreck all day, but I still had so much to say, so I sent him an e-mail even though I knew he'd never read it....I needed to talk to him," says Selby, fighting back tears. "I thanked him for being a such a good friend and I thanked him for teaching me about food, for being so creative and innovative and bringing so much to the table -- he made the rest of us shine."
Selby, now the chef of the Corner House, remembers his friend as "one of the most genuine, pure and real people I've ever met," and while Selby -- and everyone else -- tries to heal, he's still reeling from what none of us could have remotely predicted -- that a young, strong, vibrant life would be taken from us so soon. "I'll miss hanging out and messing with him, and I'll miss him tolerating my obnoxiousness and silly humor...It just doesn't seem fair that this world has to go on without someone as awesome as Curtis," he says. "Still, I'd like to think that he taught us so much about being real that we can carry on for him, because it's not everyday that you run across someone like Curtis -- someone so tolerant and vulnerable and yet so strong. Everyone misses him so much. This has ripped everyone apart."
But the outpouring of support -- "the outpouring of calls from the restaurant community validates his positive affect on people and the Denver community," stresses Wolkon, recalling an old photo of Caldwell wearing one of his favorite t-shirts that simple reads "Free Your Mind."
"He definitely leaves this world having made a difference, and his sweets will continue to put smiles on people's faces," affirms Wolkon. "The Vesta family will miss our friend and brother dearly, and we're incredibly grateful that we belong to such a genuinely supportive restaurant community."
Caldwell will be laid to rest on Friday in Warsaw, West Virginia, his hometown, and there will also be a memorial service in Denver. "We all want to celebrate the beautiful life Curtis lived," says Wolkon.
To honor Caldwell, we put together a gallery of photos -- they're on the following pages -- that will always remind us of the love he bestowed on everyone he touched.
We'll miss you, dear friend.
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R.I.P. Curtis Caldwell.