Before Arden Lewis climbed his way up New York City’s culinary ladder—studying at the former French Culinary Institute (now called the International Culinary Center), honing his skills under star chefs like Brad Farmerie (Saxon & Parole, Public) and César Ramirez (Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare), and eventually becoming a partner in a Brooklyn catering company—he worked in information technology at Goldman Sachs on Wall Street.
In his new role as executive chef of Comal Heritage Food Incubator in RiNo, you could say that Lewis has come full circle. Only now he’s building networks for the budding entrepreneurs who run Focus Points Family Resource Center’s nonprofit lunch and catering kitchen—all of whom are immigrant women from Mexico, Ethiopia, and Syria. In turn, these women are educating Lewis in the art of international cuisine, considering that “some of them have probably been cooking for longer than I’ve been alive,” he jokes. “Certainly longer than I’ve been cooking!”
In fact, when we recently spoke, less than two weeks after he arrived at Comal, Lewis told me he had just received a crash course in making tortillas. “This is going to be a journey for me, a humbling opportunity to lead while learning,” he says. That’s exactly what he’d hoped for when he moved to Denver to live with his girlfriend. “I wasn’t looking for a chef gig unless it was worth my while,” he admits. “I was looking for something else—another way to use my talents that would actually help people. This job was a direct conduit to the community.”
In that light, it makes sense that Lewis’ first simple (but critical) order of business was to closely observe the participants of the job-training program. “I’m just seeing how they work, what they’re cooking—assessing their skill and confidence levels,” Lewis says. Like everyone else in the city, he’s already enamored. “On my first full day, I took home a chicken, mushroom, and corn dish,” he recalls. “And I was like, ‘This is a very maternal meal. I feel secure, I feel safe.’”
So far, Lewis has learned how dedicated Comal’s cooks are to their craft. “Even with rice and beans, you notice that they put themselves into it,” he says. “They’ll cook the same dish, and you’ll taste differences. Finding out why it’s different is my next challenge.”
Which isn’t to say that Lewis intends to “take anything away from them” when it comes to the women’s creative vision. Rather, he says, “I’m here as a facilitator and a motivator. My job is to help them build their repertoire and their business.” Which means teaching Comal’s trainees how to scale recipes, build relationships with vendors, check invoices, fill out licensing and permitting applications, and “understand the efficiencies and the urgencies” of the hospitality industry, among other things.
But above all, being a mentor is a matter of empowerment. “I left my last job because I reached a ceiling,” Lewis says. “I want these women to have that same level of confidence when they leave Comal: ‘I’ve learned everything I can, and I’m ready to go.’”
If you go: Comal Heritage Food Incubator is located at 3455 Ringsby Ct.