Eleven years ago, Ben Jacobs and Matt Chandra launched Tocabe at 3536 West 44th Avenue, Denver's only American Indian restaurant at the time. That remains the case today, unless you count the second Tocabe, which opened a few years later at 8181 East Arapahoe Road in Greenwood Village. While young culinary students haven't exactly embraced Native American cuisine or swept it into the mainstream over the past decade, Tocabe has remained dedicated to helping Native Americans gain college educations through scholarships.
"My business partner and I have always been big proponents of education," Jacobs explains. Each year, Tocabe gives out four $1,000 scholarships, and Jacobs says recipients often stay in Denver, attending the University of Denver, Metropolitan State University and the University of Colorado Denver. "We've seen many of them graduate throughout the years," he adds.
But Jacobs also realizes that $1,000 is just a drop in the bucket for college tuition and expenses, so he also supports the American Indian College Fund by volunteering time and food to fundraisers for the organization. On Tuesday, September 17, the College Fund is holding its first Denver version of its Epicurean Award to Support Scholars (EATSS), and Jacobs is the host chef.
Dina Horwedel, director of education for the College Fund, points out that only about 14 percent of Native Americans 25 or older have a college education, but the organization is working to change that. The American Indian College Fund is a Denver-based organization founded in 1989 that last year awarded $7.65 million in scholarships to American Indian students and has given out more than 131,000 scholarships since its inception.
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Jacobs says spreading the word about Native American food is a great way to raise awareness to encourage donations to the college fund. Tocabe purchases many of its ingredients from American Indian food companies and growers; the restaurant owner points out hand-pickled huckleberries from the Muckleshoot tribe in Washington, cholla buds and Navajo chico corn from Arizona, Pima corn grits from Ute Mountain Utes in southwestern Colorado, and yonkapin (North American lotus) from his own Osage people.
"I work with the native food sovereignty movement, seed savers, growers and foragers bringing their knowledge of these ingredients," Jacobs adds. "I'm big on food having a story. It would be incredible if some day people were cooking native foods — even if they're not Native American."
You can taste some of these specialties and learn the stories at EATSS, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Mile High Station (2027 West Colfax Avenue). Tickets can be purchased on the College Fund's website for $55 each. Tocabe won't be the only restaurant serving food; chefs Will Harris of Linger, Zachary Patz of Il Posto, Paul Warthen of Potager and Claire Westcott of Safta will also present dishes. And there also will be indigenous cooking demonstrations from Native culinary students attending Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College and Navajo Technical Institute, two tribal colleges that receive support from the scholarship fund.