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Tajahi Cooke is standing in a construction zone. Ladders are scattered everywhere. Exposed wires hang from the ceiling. A piece of wood that must be slid back and forth currently serves as the front door. It’s a cold January day, and he’s checking on the progress at Freedom Street Social, a 12,000-square-foot food hall slated to open this month in northwest Arvada. Viewed through Cooke’s gold-rimmed glasses, the work still to be done fades away, and he can see groups of friends lounging on midcentury velvet couches; families gathering around contemporary wood tables; and, if all goes as planned, hungry diners lining up at the eatery he will operate within Freedom Street.
A food hall will be a boon to the rapidly growing suburb. Nearby, houses are lined up side by side like colorful Legos in planned communities with names like Whisper Creek and Candelas. They’re surrounded by vast expanses of open space, wildlife refuges, and lakes—but there are limited nonchain restaurant options for dining out. Freedom Street aims to change that with eight food concepts plus a bar and a coffeeshop with an all-vinyl soundtrack.
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Cooke is excited about bringing high-quality, creative food to the suburbs, but he also has a more personal mission: The 33-year-old chef wants to make the restaurant industry more inclusive and supportive. At Freedom Street, he will run Chef Kitchen, an incubator to encourage and showcase up-and-coming and new-to-Denver cooks on a rotating basis. “I believe every restaurant should be an institute. You’re literally training young and old minds, guiding them along the way,” Cooke says. A decade into his career, Cooke is ready to pass along his hard-earned knowledge so the chefs of tomorrow are better prepared to create the diverse, stable industry he wishes he had stepped into.
Even if you’re not familiar with Cooke’s name, you may well have eaten his food. His resumé over the past 10-plus years includes stints at Bacon Social House and now-shuttered Biju’s Little Curry Shop and Block & Larder. He also had a hand in opening two other food halls: Denver’s Broadway Market and Golden’s Tributary Food Hall & Drinkery. Although he loves working in restaurants, the through line of his career has been managing his frustration with an untenable industry that’s left him—and many other chefs—overworked and underpaid. “I was making around $44,000 a year running three restaurants,” Cooke says. “I had to argue, like really fight, to get that.” He began to wonder: How can fledgling cooks find a way to pay the bills and enjoy what they do?
Chef Kitchen is a step toward answering that question. Chefs from right here in Colorado, as well as around the country and the world, will be invited for one-month culinary residencies during which they’ll have full creative control over their menus; be paid a guaranteed salary of $1,500 per week; have their food and labor costs covered (kitchen staffers are provided, if needed); receive mentorship from Cooke; and enjoy a platform from which they can grow their brands, build confidence, and experiment. “This is an opportunity for the chefs to be valued, to be paid what they’re supposed to [be paid],” Cooke says. “There’s no opportunity like this out there right now.”
The project is being funded by Freedom Street’s developers as well as by food sales from the restaurant and the residency’s kickoff events. (Freedom Street is the brainchild of former Marco’s Pizza franchise owners Nick and Amie Costanzo, who teamed up with partners Cameron Cummins, Jeff Kaplan, and Jon Morgan to build the food hall.) Resident chefs will begin their stints by leading a pair of supper club dinners ($100 to $125 per person) on the first Friday and Saturday of the month. Cooke and his wife, Danielle, began hosting similar pop-up events at a rotating roster of restaurants across the Front Range in early 2021; Freedom Street will be their new home.
“The pandemic shed a light on how upside down hospitality was and the models and metrics that were running it,” says Gertie Harris, co-founder of Fireside at Five, which handles marketing for the food hall. With Chef Kitchen managing all of the business aspects and taking away the financial pressures, she says, “the minutiae go away, and it becomes about the chef, the community, the menu, and the storytelling, which is what hospitality should be.”
Cooke plans to host up to 12 chefs each year, some of whom will be relative rookies; others will be established toques testing new concepts or introducing themselves to the Denver market. All of them will go through an application process. The core attribute Cooke is looking for: passion. “You can always see and taste passion,” he says. “I want to see it on their plates.”
Among the already confirmed food pros is Forest Ragar, the former executive chef at Denver’s Watercourse Foods, who worked with Cooke at Bacon Social House. Ragar is familiar with the conventional trajectory of chefs: Cook for someone else, then try to establish your style through food trucks (he now operates one) and pop-ups, with no guarantee of money or support. Chef Kitchen provides that guarantee, if just for a short time. “Every chef, whether they’ve been cooking someone else’s menu or [making] something they think is hot—there’s something on the back burner they just love to eat and love to cook. That’s the magic; that’s the stuff you want to share with the world,” Ragar says. “To have a format for that, a canvas for that, make that more accessible…that’s something I want to be a part of.”
Another critical piece in casting Chef Kitchen is diversity. Cooke experienced firsthand what it was like to be a Black chef working under primarily white, male bosses. “The first time I worked for someone of my color, and of my background, in my career was at Biju’s Little Curry Shop,” he says. “Other than [owner Biju Thomas, who hails from South India], I never saw another owner that looked like me, that came from where I came from.” Chef Kitchen is about increasing representation in the industry. Says Cooke: “I want this lineup of chefs to represent the world.”
Cooke knows how easy it would have been for his story to turn out differently. He understands that many kids who grew up like him don’t find success like he has. Cooke was raised in Jamaica until he was nine, and his mother was in prison for a large portion of his childhood. He grew up surrounded by violence on the island nation, and to get him away from it, his dad—a tour manager for big-name bands such as the Fugees and Michael Franti—started taking his son with him on work trips all over the world. It opened up Cooke’s perspective and fostered his present-day mission. “I used to be a kid on the streets,” Cooke says, before individuals in his life showed him other options. With that in mind, Cooke and Freedom Street’s owners envision the venue not only as a refuge for chefs but also as a safe space for area school kids. Cooke plans to use the food stall outside of eating hours to teach cooking classes and to host other events that provide teenagers with a positive outlet.
His explorations with his dad were a learning experience. Fortunately for diners, those forays will inspire the menu at Breakfast Club, the morning eatery Cooke will also run out of the Chef Kitchen space. He’s playing around with dishes such as Bangladeshi coffee and Japanese soufflé pancakes.
Standing beside the under-construction Chef Kitchen space in January, Cooke’s excitement is palpable. He’s energized by the opportunity to help others and make good food, but he’s also realistic about what one chef in one kitchen in one Denver suburb can do to help address the restaurant industry’s systemic issues. For him, Chef Kitchen is setting an example of what could be: kitchens run by diverse staffs who are paid fairly and provided the support and leadership they need to succeed. “I don’t expect it to change this business that I love so much; I just want to improve on it,” Cooke says. “The restaurant industry is about adapting, innovating, and moving forward and growing with the times that we’re in. This is one of the ways of adapting with the times.”
(Read more: Pop-Up Advocacy Kitchen at Brutø Spotlights Chef Stories, Social Issues)