On a blustery Saturday evening, well-dressed patrons mingle over craft cocktails and passed bites of pheasant sausage, fat coins of raw scallop, and deconstructed elote with spicy bits of chicharrón. They're not at one of Denver's hippest new eateries, though. These gourmands are enjoying food from several Latino chefs participating in Buen Provecho, a fundraiser for Re:Vision.
The setting is the terraced back patio of Re:Vision, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the community, economy and food systems of Denver's Westwood neighborhood, which is 81 percent Latino, according to the organization. Founded in 2007, Re:Vision maintains its headquarters at 3800 Morrison Road, a vibrant stretch studded with taquerias, bakeries and other locally owned businesses that cuts diagonally from West Alameda Avenue to South Sheridan Boulevard. Next door at 3738 Morrison, Re:Vision has spent the past several years converting a blighted property into a member-owned market and community gathering place surrounded by a small urban farm.
Among Re:Vision's projects are helping Westwood families establish their own gardens and running the co-op, which is now open six days a week, up from three days a week over the past two years. With the fall harvest in full swing, shoppers can enjoy produce right from Re:Vision's gardens (visible out the back windows of the space), as well as other locally grown and made products.
At the Buen Provecho dinner (which followed the cocktail reception), Joanna Cintrón, Re:Vision's executive director, points out some of the other changes, including a gorgeous new commissary kitchen with roll-up garage windows that look out into a dining hall, which doubles as an art gallery and events center. Chefs Dana Rodriguez (Work & Class and Super Mega Bien), Edwin Sandoval (Xatrucho), Gustavo Mejía (Bang Up to the Elephant), Andrea Murdoch (Four Directions Cuisine), Matilde Garcia (Mujeres Emprendedoras Cooperative), Damaris Ronkanen (Cultura Craft Chocolate), Jose Avila (X'tabai Yucateco), Sharif Villa Cruz (Mercantile Dining & Provision) and Ocean Lopez (a personal chef and caterer) used that kitchen to serve a packed (and appreciative) house unique dishes from Mexico and other Latin American countries.
Three of those chefs will be staying on at Re:Vision to offer food and events on a more regular basis. Here's the lineup:
Cultura Craft Chocolate
Damaris Ronkanen began her culinary career as a pastry chef and line cook after finding inspiration during visits to her mother's home town near the border of Puebla and Oaxaca, Mexico. After taking time away from professional cooking to work in an immigration law office for five years, her growing passion for cacao led her to get into the chocolate business in 2013, and then to launch Cultura Craft Chocolate in 2016. Ronkanen currently creates bean-to-bar chocolate in a small kitchen on East Colfax Avenue, but she wanted to find a larger space where customers could come and taste chocolate as it is served in many forms in Mexico.
"I loved what Re:Vision was doing, especially when it comes to issues of food security," she explains, and so when a 1,200-square-foot portion of the organization's building was put up for lease, the chocolatier realized that it was just what she was looking for. "I felt like it was a great opportunity for me. I don't have a retail space for people to come and get my chocolates."
In addition to bringing in her chocolate production equipment, she's setting up a cafe where guests can enjoy Mexican beverages such as atole, champurrado, cafe de olla and cafe con leche. But Ronkanen doesn't plan on having a sleek espresso machine; instead, she'll make chocolate- and coffee-based drinks in the traditional manner: in clay pots over direct heat, for example.
Ronkanen's cacao beans come from various parts of Latin America, including Tabasco, Mexico. "I've been fortunate enough to visit all the cacao farms we're buying from," she notes, adding that the chocolate business is fraught with exploitation of labor and unsustainable farming practices, so she's very careful to work with socially and environmentally focused farms.
Ronkanen hopes to have her cafe open in November or December, and says she's looking forward to "working together to create a cool space so people can see what Westwood is all about."
Jose Avila, the co-owner of Machete Tequila + Tacos, is a native of Mexico City, but his true culinary love is the food of the Yucatán Peninsula, which he grew up eating because of family members and neighbors hailing from the region. He just received his food-truck permit and will soon be launching X'tabai Yucateco, an Airstream-style trailer dedicated to Mayan street food. "My trailer has been collecting dust for years, so I finally decided to put it to good use," he says, noting that the last hurdle is the final permitting for Re:Vision's commissary kitchen, where he'll be doing all of his food prep.
X'tabai (pronounced ish-tah-bye) will serve cochinita pibil, the slow-roasted pork dish famous in Yucatan; sikil pac, a pumpkin-seed dip; relleno negro, a black stew often made with turkey; poc chuc de pollo, a tangy, spicy chicken dish; and other Yucatecan specialties. Customers will have their choice of proteins or vegetarian filling to add to tacos, panuchos (corn tortillas slit and stuffed with black bean paste), tortas or chilaquiles.
Avila says he'll be working with Vicente Chi, a 71-year-old chef and native Yucatecan, to bring his food to a Denver audience. "He makes four types of achiote — all from scratch," Avila points out. The chef is currently scouting locations for X'tabai, and he says he'll also be working with chef Edwin Sandoval on pop-ups and other food-based events at Re:Vision.
Chef Edwin Sandoval was born in Honduras and came to the U.S. when he was ten years old, but his culinary education has been based in the European classics. With his company, Xatrucho (the x is pronounced like a k), Sandoval merges Latin American cuisine with modern culinary techniques at catered events, pop-ups, private dining experiences and festivals. He'll be using Re:Vision's kitchen as a base for his own cooking as well as a training ground for young cooks and entrepreneurs looking to start their own food-based businesses.
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"We're trying to put other chefs ahead of us to bring something great to Westwood," Sandoval explains. "I think it's a great chance to make a difference in the Latin American community while using [Re:Vision's] organic farm and shipping container producing greens and herbs."
While he has yet to hammer out an exact schedule, Sandoval says to be on the lookout for many more events similar to Buen Provecho, some of which will "showcase what Honduran food is really all about." Sandoval came up with the name Xatrucho as a combination of Catracho, the nickname Hondurans call themselves, and Xatruch, the last name of a famous Honduran general.
According to Cintrón, the entrepreneurial incubator side of the business will partner with the Rocky Mountain MicroFinance Institute to help provide funding for more promising trainees. "Sandoval and Avila will also be programmatic partners — so there will be more events, chef collaborations and collaborations with our farm team," she promises.
With these ambitious chefs on board, Re:Vision is changing Westwood's reputation from food desert to food destination.