The Osage Cafe, a nonprofit restaurant at 1099 Osage Street that serves as a training ground for at-risk youth, is taking the wraps off its new menu and its updated culinary curriculum. Meals created from scratch are at the heart of its new approach.
The cafe and training academy, which is operated by the Denver Housing Authority (DHA), had closed in October to refresh its training and employment programs, but is now back in business to provide fresh meals for the La Alma/Lincoln Park neighborhood. Slavica Park, director of community connections at the DHA and executive officer of the Youth Employment Academy, has spearheaded the transition along with newly hired executive chef Tim Bender. Park and Bender previously worked together at Comal Heritage Food Incubator, a nonprofit restaurant that doubles as a training platform for entrepreneurial immigrants.
Bender explains that at Comal, “we had big aspirations of creating an empire, if you will, of incubators and learning facilities for people who don’t necessarily get the same chances that some other people do. I’m really excited to continue on that in a different light. Now I get to teach the future generation of chefs and people who are really interested in the industry.”
While working at Comal, Park ran workforce development and Bender oversaw a training program that helps immigrant women living in Globeville and Elyria-Swansea gain the skills to run their own food businesses. Now, Bender's job as executive chef is to act as more of a mentor to trainees new to the food-service industry.
Osage Cafe enrollees start their culinary education through the academy’s 45-hour training program, which gives students a basic knowledge of cooking and knife skills, recipe reading, nutrition and food safety. Graduates leave with ServSafe Food Handler Training certification. The initial 45-hour program is currently entirely online, but an additional 120-hour paid internship allows students to gain hands-on experience in the cafe.
The internship allows students to train in the real world and provides an opportunity to differentiate between theory and practice, says Park. She hopes the expanded curriculum will provide young adults with a deeper knowledge of the culinary arts and understanding of their own personal interests.
Park says that many of the teenagers in the program are still figuring out “who they are, what they want to do [and] what they have a passion for.” She hopes the program can help them realize what culinary career they might want to focus on — be it baking, refining a particular product, catering, working in management or sales — or ultimately decide that they want to pursue a different career altogether.
Bender adds that the training gives students a base knowledge in the chemistry of cooking. “I’ve been cooking from scratch in gourmet kitchens for ten years now,” he continues. “We can make our own Thousand Island dressing, our own sauerkraut. They get to see where real food comes from.” He hopes that cooking from scratch will foster relationships with local farmers and teach students an appreciation of whole foods. Osage Cafe already has a partnership with Denver Botanic Gardens.
“The interns have already said that they’re amazed [by] what Tim is teaching them — about how to use absolutely everything; nothing goes to waste,” Park relates. “It's extremely exciting for them to have someone to model that.”
Further, the food itself is getting an upgrade. While keeping many of the community-approved menu items, new recipes and techniques are changing the quality and flavors. For example, Bender explains, “instead of buying the pre-sliced, sheeted beef shavings for Philly cheesesteaks, [we bought] Angus New York strips and created our own signature rub, marinated it for six days and then slow-roasted it.”
Both Park and Bender see the menu upgrade as only the beginning of their service to the students and the community. “When we get everything set up, it’s going to be an experience of a lifetime,” Bender says of the program. “And they’re going to be badasses in the kitchen.”
The Osage Cafe is now open from 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Call 720-956-3822 or visit the cafe's website for details.