No one would say that the kitchen is an easy place to work—chefs must regularly contend with a host of challenges from designing the perfect menu to executing dishes flawlessly under pressure. But for Brandon Foster, the executive chef at Project Angel Heart (PAH) a nonprofit that provides meals free-of-charge to people with life-threatening illnesses, the kitchen challenges are a bit different.
Foster, who was previously the executive chef at the Vesta Dipping Grill, spends roughly eight to 12 hours a week planning the menu for the 1,100 clients that PAH feeds each day. He first decides on the main course before sitting down with Logan Lafferty, PAH’s modified meals specialist, to tweak the menu to conform with the various dietary-restriction categories of the clients. Versions of the meal must be low in sodium; others are free of allergens such as dairy, coconut, egg, or mushrooms; and others still must avoid superfluous flavors for clients who cannot tolerate seasonings. As you could imagine, the guidelines are extremely limiting. But to Foster, the satisfaction that comes with providing a delicious, healthy meal makes it worth it. “Really what I care about is making people happy,” he says. “I just want to make food that makes everyone feel good.”
Project Angel Heart began in a small church kitchen in 1991 as a way to provide proper nutrition to those suffering from HIV and AIDS. But over the last 25 years, it has grown into a large commercial kitchen in Globeville staffed by six full-time chefs and nearly 30 daily volunteers. PAH celebrated its 25th anniversary this year by bringing in three prominent local chefs—Paul C. Reilly, owner of Beast & Bottle and Coperta, Tyler Wiard, culinary director of Elway’s, and Aniedra Nichols, chef and managing partner at Kevin Morrison’s upcoming Fish N Beer (and former Elway’s chef)—to create and prepare a meal for the clients alongside Foster.
After spending a day in the PAH kitchen with Wiard, it was clear that the experience was a meaningful one for him. “Doing things like this makes me realize why I cook,” he says. And while the guest chef series was a chance for the chefs to give back to the community, PAH also hoped that it would spread more awareness about what the organization is doing.
The Guest Chef Series will culminate tomorrow, October 12, when Foster and the PAH team will craft and cook an original recipe by Nichols. And while Nichols surely had her own challenges in developing a healthy yet flavorful creation, there was one element she didn’t have to worry about: dessert. One meal each week is complimented with a house-baked chocolate chip cookie. While the cookies clearly don’t fit into the healthy dietary guidelines, these optional treats remind both the clients and PAH staff, that, while they must be careful with the food they serve and eat, there is always room to enjoy a little something sweet.
Interested in volunteering with Project Angel Heart? Visit the website here.
Chef Tyler Wiard’s Mexican-Style Beef Stew
Wiard’s beef stew had to undergo a few modifications before it was PAH friendly. Here’s the final version. Note: For some clients, the beans were replaced with rice.
4 pounds beef stew meat
1 pound yellow onion, julienned
1/2 pound celery, chopped
1 pound green chilies, diced (frozen is fine)
2 ounces garlic powder
1 ounce green chile powder
1 ounce cumin, ground
1/2 ounce coriander, ground
1/2 ounce oregano, dry
1 gallon chicken or beef broth
1 pound pinto or black beans (soaked in water overnight)
1 pound zucchini, chopped
1/2 pound corn, frozen
Masa flour to thicken if needed
Kosher salt and pepper to taste
Cotija cheese and cilantro for garnish
1 head green cabbage, cored and chopped
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped
Kosher salt and pepper to taste
Place a large stockpot on the stove over medium-high heat, and add a bit of cooking oil. Add the beef and cook until evenly browned, then add onions and celery. Cook until vegetables are soft, then add the green chilies, dried spices, and broth.
Add pinto beans, then bring the stew to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook on low heat for about an hour. Add frozen corn and zucchini, then let cook for another hour until beans are soft.
While the stew is simmering, prepare your cabbage. Heat a sauté pan over medium-high heat and add oil. Sauté the cabbage lightly, season with salt and pepper, and mix the cilantro in at the end.
Once your beans are tender and creamy and the stew has reduced, whisk a little bit of masa flour with some water in a separate container to form a slurry (the consistency should be similar to pancake batter). Add a little bit of slurry at a time to thicken the stew. If you accidentally add too much, just thin it out with more broth or water.
Season the stew to taste with salt and pepper, and top with some Cotija cheese and chopped cilantro. Serve with cabbage on the side.