As chef at the now-defunct Row 14, Jensen Cummings was used to being asked to participate in charity events; out of 150 requests, he did 31 events in 2013. And even as he made plans to open his own spot, the Slotted Spoon Meatball Eatery, at 2730 South Colorado Boulevard, he was thinking there had to be a better way for restaurants to work with nonprofits. So when Slotted Spoon opened in February 2013, it did so with a Heroes Against Hunger essay contest with a local school; the three fifth-graders who wrote the winning essays were honored at the restaurant's opening festivities. A few months later, Cummings hosted a block party benefiting three nonprofits with Jeff Osaka, Matt Selby, Tyler Wiard, Brandon Foster and Daniel Asher (all chefs renowned for their charitable efforts), where kids could show off produce they'd grown. And that wasn't the only thing growing that summer: Cummings had just learned that he and his wife, an events manager, were having a son, and that news and the success of the party provided the catalyst to turn Heroes Against Hunger into Heroes Like Us, a full-fledged nonprofit that could focus on helping restaurants work better with nonprofits -- and vice versa. "Independently owned restaurants, which take the biggest burden in these nonprofit events, are essentially nonprofits themselves," Cummings points out. See also: The Dish on Paul and Aileen Reilly, CRA's Best Newcomers Award-Winners The first step was to "let the nonprofits know there has to be a better way. It can't be this obligatory handout that's been the norm for so long," Cummings remembers. "In our first year of Heroes, we did a lot of exploring and working with a multitude of nonprofits, all in the realm of food/health/wellness and children. We wanted to work with nonprofits to promote better practices to attract the culinary community, and also for us to understand how the culinary community could have a bigger impact."
The impact of Heroes Like Us was enough for Cummings to be honored with the Colorado Restaurant Association's Philanthropist Signature Dish Award in April 2014. Before 2014 ends, Heroes Like Us will have worked on 45 events, "a big number for our first year," Cummings says, and those events will gross $1.5 million. But that figure is "gross," he emphasizes: "We're working with the nonprofits to get better at that net number, to operate more as businesses do." And in the next year, Heroes will work at focusing its efforts, going deeper rather than further, bringing together the culinary community, nonprofits and the general public "and tying a nice bow around it," Cummings promises.
But Heroes Like Us isn't the only project Cummings has in his package. He's been working with the BSide, a beer-centric eatery that Justin Lloyd of Star Bar and partners are opening this week in Uptown, and things are rolling at the Slotted Spoon. Then there's his own growing family, and the growing restaurant family in Denver. "What's interesting about our industry is that it is so diverse," Cummings says. "Each of us is working toward similar goals with different tactics."
We talked to Cummings, as well as other CRA winners about those goals. Here are his answers:
What was your first restaurant job?
When I graduated high school in San Diego, I went to Ames, Iowa, to work in my uncle's restaurant for the summer -- mostly to meet college girls and party a bit. I had no idea I would make that summer job washing dishes into a career.
When did you realize you would make your career in the restaurant industry? I should have known from a young age, since my family had been restaurateurs since 1900 in the States -- and our family had culinary ties even long before that in France. I am now the fifth consecutive generation of culinarians in my family. Even my younger brother is a chef and worked with me for years here in Denver. Anyway, it was about a year into working at my uncle's sports bar, Wallaby's, and I had already moved from dish to running the wheel. That was the moment I knew I loved being in the industry. That is when I started saving money to go to culinary school. I haven't looked back since.
What made you decide to make Colorado the focus of that career?
I had moved to Kansas City to open a restaurant as exec sous when I was only 22. I also worked for famed chef Debbie Gold in Kansas City. My now-wife was finishing school at Iowa State, and we were talking about our plans after she graduated. Her brother had moved out to Boulder the year before, and Betsy came to visit. She got back and said, "We're moving to Colorado!" That was it. I started researching chef-driven restaurants in Denver. We moved out in August 2007. I only interviewed with three chefs: Kevin Taylor, Jennifer Jasinski and Jean-Phillipe Failyau (when he was still at Mizuna); I knew I wanted to work for that caliber of chef. I took the job as sous-chef with Kevin Taylor and soon moved to exec chef at Kevin Taylor's at the Opera House.
What was the dining scene like when you got your start here?
It was very classic American and European. Solid, but waiting for a spark. My Japanese heritage, being raised in Germany and an adolescence in Southern California left me searching for some more cultural diversity in the chef-driven dining scene. Keep reading for more from Jensen Cummings. What was your favorite restaurant then?
Jade Garden was my Asian fix in that first year. I was a huge fan of BJ [Wojtowicz], who was the chef at Restaurant Kevin Taylor. To this day, a birthday dinner for Betsy with BJ is the fifth-best meal we have had, ahead of even some national acclaimed joints. Cyrus is still the tops, barely edging out French Laundry.
What is your favorite restaurant today?
Lao Wang Noodle House is the staple of my dining destinations. The most well-rounded spot, in my opinion, is the Populist. My favorite dish in Denver is agedashi tofu at Izakaya Den.
What have been the best developments in the local dining scene since you got your start? The penetration of Asian techniques and ingredients has been my favorite development in the scene. I especially can't get enough of "de-ricious nooders" (as my bachan [grandmother] says).
What have been the worst developments in the local dining scene?
The rapid growth rate of restaurants opening in Denver has far eclipsed the amount of restaurant professionals to staff everyone. It's been a huge strain on the industry. What have been the most surprising developments?
I have been very surprised how slowly beer-and-food pairing has become part of the scene. It has been a passion of mine since before I moved to Denver, so when I moved here I thought it would be so much more ingrained in the culture. It seemed a no-brainer with the brewing pedigree in Denver and Colorado. I dedicated myself to food and beer to the point of becoming a certified Cicerone to bolster my beer knowledge. It has not been until the last three years that I have really seen it embraced in the chef scene. Now I really feel we have a strong beer-and-food scene in our fair city.
How have you changed the way you do business, and why?
In so many ways! One of my new approaches is called "the sandbox." It is about focusing culinary creativity to fit seamlessly into a brand concept. I know as a chef I have run amok with my food and forgot about staying on brand and understanding our audience. I now first work to create the "sandbox," which are structures and systems strategically implemented to keep everything coming out of the kitchen on target. Once the sandbox is built, then I or any of my chefs can build sandcastles or make sand angels or dig a moat if we want, but we cannot stray outside the sandbox. Balancing creativity and responsible business.
How have consumers changed during your tenure?
They have been handed a blessing and a curse in the form of food TV. We as chefs have more clout these days -- which can be advantageous in getting to "play" in your kitchen. However, it has turned everyone into a food expert, which can be challenging. On the flip side, within the industry we have the same issue as chefs and cooks have become experts through osmosis.
Who is the most interesting person on the scene right now, and why? My good friend and fellow Cicerone Ryan Conklin is doing some inspired work with his beer and whiskey program at Argyll. His passion and approach to pairings is always unique, and he immerses himself into the culinary program to try to understand flavor and technique --all things that I hold in high regard.
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If you'd like to see one thing happen to the local dining scene, what would it be? Locally owned restaurants garner such a minuscule portion of the market share in restaurant revenue in Denver. I want to see these restaurateurs and chefs taking more time to grow our audience. We can only cannibalize the "foodies" so much. How do we find those on the fringes who need to be eased into the progressive dining scene? How do we define and grow a culture of those passionate about our scene? We too often go zero to 60 and expect our city's diners to follow suit, but we are not finding ways to bridge the gap between what they are comfortable with and what we want them to experience with us. Let's take responsibility to take them on this culinary journey with us! This interview was originally published in Dish, our annual guide to the Denver dining scene.