Word of Mouth

The Dish on Jensen Cummings, CRA's Philanthropist Award Winner

Page 2 of 2

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.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun