In the midst of more than one hundred dark days for the Denver restaurant community since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Colorado in mid-March, July 5 was a darker day than most. On that sunny morning, while in Summit County with his family—wife Larissa, daughters Amelia and Ella, and son Harrison—41-year-old Project Angel Heart (PAH) executive chef Brandon Foster unexpectedly suffered a seizure and passed away. 

Foster had led the kitchens at Project Angel Heart, a Denver nonprofit that prepares and delivers meals for people living with life-threatening illnesses, since 2016, when he left behind cooking in independent restaurants to serve a population in need—and to spend more time with his beloved family. Prior to that professional move, Foster cooked for 11 years at Vesta, and also at Mel’s and the Fourth Story. He served on the culinary advisory board at Emily Griffith Technical College and was an active member of the James Beard Foundation; he was invited to cook at the James Beard House in New York City in 2015, one of the highlights of his career.

Chef Brandon Foster with his daughter, Ella, and wife Larissa. Photo by Kari Cummings

In a story about Foster and Project Angel Heart that was written in 2016, just a few months after he began cooking for more than 1,000 ill Denverites every day, Foster said this: “Really what I care about is making people happy. I just want to make food that makes everyone feel good.” He surely would have continued to do so for decades to come, and his contribution to the Colorado community and dining scene cannot be understated. We asked a few of the people who knew him best to further explain how deeply Foster’s impact reverberated through the community.

There is an active GoFundMe campaign and Facebook art auction this week in support of Foster’s family, should you care to contribute.

(The following has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

Summer Polson, sous chef (since 2009), Project Angel Heart

Brandon came in for the interview process and right away, I knew: He’s the one. I asked him, what do you do if someone calls out? And he said, “It doesn’t matter. I’ll do anything, dishes, whatever it takes.” That’s what I was looking for, an executive chef that’s willing to step into any position that needs to be filled, even dishes. We were very similar to each other in work style. If he was ever up in arms about something, I would be totally calm, and vice versa. It worked really well for us. 

The PAH volunteers loved him. The morning shift volunteers are a bit older and they just doted on Brandon. The nighttime shifts are a bit of a rowdier crowd, so I usually oversee those. They loved to give Brandon a hard time, all the time! He’d come back to say hi or goodnight to me as he was leaving for the day, and they’d give him a hard time about how much (food) they have to chop…or if he was covering for me, they would tell him that I didn’t make them do certain things (he was asking them to do). He’d pull out notes that I’d left him that said that this group would lie to you about things, and mislead you, and convince you to make them cookies! 

His family was so important to him. That’s a big reason why he came to PAH, for better work-life balance and to be with his kids more. And every year, Bring Your Kids To Work Day falls on Dining Out for Life day—so it would be our busiest day of the year and all the kids would be here. He’d bring his daughters and come up with a project for them in the kitchen. I usually came in after him, and as I’d walk around the corner, they’d all be there chanting my name. 

You don’t know the impact someone has had until the person isn’t there anymore. Then it’s like, oh my goodness, is there anyone you haven’t touched? There’s no one’s life that Brandon hasn’t touched in such a positive way; there’s no one Brandon has come in contact with that doesn’t express themselves as heartbroken right now. We’re just going to miss him so much. 

Kari Cummings, bar manager (since 2003), Vesta

Brandon’s impact on the Vesta group is really special. He was the shining star of the team for a really long time. This has been a difficult time but it’s brought up a lot of great stories about Brandon; we’ve all spent a lot of time laughing about the things he used to do and say. He was so fun and passionate. He gave nicknames to everyone that came through the door. (He called me Care Bear; we called him Sweathog.) He was really playful. Everybody talks about how selfless he was and how he cared for the community, but he was also a real big goofball. Always joking. 

We’d get orders in these large cardboard boxes and he’d make a point to go hide in one of the boxes…and jump out when someone walked by to scare them. If it rained or there was a big storm and the alley flooded behind Vesta, he’d have boat races: Whenever there was a break in the tickets, all the kitchen crew would have made their own bamboo boats with skewers and tape, and they’d have races. Everyone would run out of the kitchen during service, race boats down the alley, and then run back inside. Brandon was so young at heart. You knew that if you walked into work and saw him, it was going to be a fun night. He would scream your name and bang his tongs on the metal and everyone would follow, giving this huge ovation for everyone who walked in. He instituted Jimmy Buffet Fridays, where all the cooks wore Hawaiian shirts and he’d play Buffet all day long. 

But he was also so much more. When he put in his notice to go to PAH, he wanted to be home with his family for dinner and be there for his kids, and work with a nonprofit that means something. He was always ready to help out. Even after he left Vesta, he’d come in on busy nights, like before Valentine’s Day service or New Year’s Eve; he’d come into the shift meeting to give high fives and a jolt of energy to the team. He was still part of the family. Vesta has had a lot of loss in the last couple of years, and he’d be the first one to show up and hug and talk and cry, which always meant a lot. Brandon was man enough to show his feelings and be there for people and mourn with everyone. That’s been on my mind. He left nothing on the table and he left it all on the floor. He gave everything he had every day, for everybody, and not many people can say that about their life.

Chef Brandon Foster at Vesta. Photo by Kari Cummings

Owen Ryan, president and CEO, Project Angel Heart 

Brandon was the epitome of our mission. He could have taken the path of owning his own restaurant or being a big name, but he had a calling to bring nutritious food to as many people as possible. He really was the heart of our organization. He had a way of bringing people in and making them understand the work we’re trying to accomplish. He was super welcoming; when I was new to my role and didn’t know a lot of people, he was friendly, with open arms, willing to teach and listen. 

Now, he leaves us with a great team that he built and mentored, a team of chefs who identify with our mission, which is about healing people, not just making food. In the longer term, his involvement has raised the bar in our expectations for food and commitment to the Colorado community. 

We’re going to take our time moving forward. Getting through the pandemic has been extremely difficult; the staff was already exhausted and spent. I told them all that this is our time to grieve together as a staff and a community, and hold up Brandon’s legacy. 

Paul C. Reilly, chef-owner, Beast & Bottle, Coperta

Foster and I forged a new level of friendship in the summer of 2012. Encore had just closed and I took it pretty hard. Foster called and said that he needed some help, so I took the job and became a line cook at Vesta for the next five months or so. He was my chef, I was his cook. But it very quickly got to be more than that. Foster’s cooks had this respect for him, but it wasn’t militaristic; they adored him. He supported me when I was dreaming about what Beast & Bottle would become, and until his death, he was always a cheerleader for our restaurants and for me as a chef. 

A few months after he started at PAH (and Coperta was maybe a month old, and my life was insane) Foster asked me to plan out a meal for the patients. Something indicative of your restaurants, he told me. So we planned a bolognese with veggies in the pasta, and I submitted the recipe. He came back to me and said we need five other variations: no dairy, no gluten, no tomatoes… I said, ‘Foster, you gotta be kidding me! Chefs hate submitting even one recipe!’ Coperta was like three weeks old, I couldn’t believe I said I would do this. But when we got down to PAH, and I saw him cooking this bolognese all these different ways for these people with all the exactitude and passion he had, I was flabbergasted. What he was doing was so selfless, going out of his way to craft recipes from scratch. He had it so dialed in. It was a real testament to how much he was willing to use his talents for those that needed them. I don’t know anyone else that could do that. 

One of the long-lasting things I think about is how lucky I feel that we had a friendship that was beyond the kitchen. We could bounce ideas off one another about food, sure, but also ideas on growing up, raising a family, how to do that while being a chef and a leader of people…which they don’t teach you how to do. Leadership came naturally to him, but we wanted to be better at it. We helped each other with that. 

As much as I can talk about all the things he loved and was passionate about, there was nothing he loved more than his family. He put it first above everything. I don’t know anyone who does that the way he did. 

Foster had this joyous effect on people that you don’t find often. In a world that is so bizarre and unprecedented and not full of joy, it seems so odd that someone so full of joy is not with us anymore. 

Josh Wolkon, owner, Vesta, Steuben’s, Ace Eat Serve

At Brandon’s viewing (on July 12), there were generations of Vesta staff crossing paths; the family aspect of that team goes so far back. It’s tough, especially now, with distancing and no hugging. Not having Vesta open at the moment to congregate and mourn together is challenging. 

I keep thinking about how we recognize what makes a great chef. That’s sometimes different from a celebrity chef or the hottest chef at the moment, the one everyone is writing about; the same could be said for a restaurant, to a degree. Brandon epitomized that kind of chef, the people that keep those community restaurants open for 10, 20, 30 years. There should be a Brandon Foster award (similar to the Noel Cunningham award), for being a mentor and teacher and giving back to the community. People wanted to work for Brandon for more than just building their resume; if you work for a chef like that, you’re so loyal, grateful, and happy to work in such a positive kitchen. We should stop and recognize the chefs that made choices like Brandon, to work in a nonprofit kitchen. He chose his family, too. He found a sweet spot there. 

I’ve been thinking back on the era in Denver when Brandon was at Vesta, and who his immediate crew of chefs was then says a lot: Alex Seidel, Paul Reilly, Jeff Osaka, Jamey Fader. It was a decade in which Denver dining came of age, and there was such camaraderie and support and love and excitement; everyone wanted everyone else to succeed. The scene has matured now, but when Brandon was at Vesta is when Denver came into its own. He was as much a part of that as anyone else.  

Brandon was a great one. It’s tragically sad. I’m hopeful that we walk away from this reminded by Brandon’s memory to be positive. I see it in his kids—all three of them have his same life energy. Especially in these crazy times, we could all benefit from being a little more like Brandon. We can ask ourselves what we can do or give to help? We can challenge ourselves to truly see people and humanity. We can focus on our children. And we can listen to the music play and smile, smile, smile.

Owen Ryan of Project Angel Heart has indicated that the organization will host a memorial service for Brandon Foster in the coming weeks. We will update this story when we know more.

Denise Mickelsen
Denise Mickelsen
Denise Mickelsen is 5280’s former food editor. She oversaw all of 5280’s food-related coverage from October 2016 to March 2021.