The Search for Sabor

Empowering female food entrepreneurs in Denver’s most underserved communities.

While many of history’s most famous chefs happen to be male, any respectable food historian will credit the vast majority of our international culinary heritage to the ingenuity and creativity of resourceful mothers. Happily, the ambitions of these talented women are no longer relegated to feeding their families. In fact, one of Denver’s most delicious dining experiences is a kitchen run entirely by female cooks.

To those simply swinging by for lunch, Comal Heritage Food Incubator—located in RiNo’s TAXI complex—might seem like an ordinary restaurant. Yet for the dozens of women who have participated in the program, the experience has been a rare career training opportunity. That’s because Comal exclusively supports female immigrants and refugees who originate from countries including Mexico, El Salvador, Syria, Iraq and Ethiopia. The lucky few who are accepted into the program are not only paid a stipend, they are also taught professional culinary and business skills that can help them launch their own entrepreneurial ventures.

The project is overseen by Focus Points, a family resource center in Elyria-Swansea that serves some of Denver’s most under-resourced populations. Yet rather than a top-down approach, what makes Focus Points—and Comal—so intriguing is the organization’s unwavering dedication to community-led initiatives. In the words of Matthew Vernon, the Director of Social Enterprise, “Our M.O. is about breaking the nonprofit model. We have no business starting projects unless they are 100% community-driven. We’re simply the platform for economic development—the resources to fuel their ideas.”

Comal, itself, was started by a handful of Mexican immigrants in the community who wanted to share and preserve their culinary heritage. (A comal, in Spanish, is a flat griddle for making tortillas—the centerpiece of the traditional Mexican kitchen.) In just a few months, with Focus Points’ help, the concept had rapidly evolved into a culinary business training program with a prime piece of RiNo real estate to its name (graciously offered up by Zeppelin Development). Nearly five years later, the program has successfully trained more than 30 women from its kitchen.

Before joining Focus Points as a volunteer in 2017, Vernon was an MBA-educated co-owner of The Honest Stand, a Denver-based, plant-fueled food brand. His role at Comal quickly developed into providing a business structure for the program, helping to ensure that all participants gained the necessary skills to not only cook professionally, but also potentially launch their own concepts. “What I’m most proud of are the four full-fledged businesses that have been started by Comal graduates and survived the pandemic,” Vernon boasts. Those local concepts are Jebena Ethiopian Coffee + Culture, Prietos Catering, La Catrina Grill and Zaki Mediterranean. Ranging from food trucks to more formal catering services, many of them currently employ other Comal graduates.

Yet the journey of starting—and graduating from—Comal is anything but easy. “Families that have just moved here or are in a low income bracket face barriers that can make it hard to show up on time, to be present at work, to have childcare covered…” Vernon explains. “So the first step in our program is an intense outreach and onboarding effort that helps make sure participants have the resources they need before starting the incubator.”

Once they’re in the kitchen, all participants undergo the same progressive education, moving from kitchen porter, to prep cook, to line cook, to leading the kitchen for two days as a final exam. After passing an initial exam proving they already know how to cook, every individual works through these levels at their own pace, to ensure they gain the skills they’ll need to succeed.

“What Comal [uniquely] provides is the space to grow, practice and fail safely,” Vernon notes. “As an entrepreneur or even just a person in the kitchen, you have to learn how to make tough calls and handle the day-to-day stress.”

“Learning the dishwashing station was the hardest part,” laughs Juana Armijo. “It seems simple, but it’s not.” An immigrant from Durango, Mexico, Armijo first heard about Comal through a local community event where she was preparing tamales. Shortly thereafter, she visited the kitchen and had a chance to try the cooking of two Syrian participants in the program. The chance to experience other cuisines and to expand her own culinary creativity has remained her favorite part of the program, recently culminating in the addition of her first original recipe—beautifully plated huaraches—to the Comal menu.

The multicultural environment that Armijo finds so inspiring can also lead to friction that you might not find in other restaurants: “Comal is a place of magic and drama,” Vernon laughs. “Anyone who has ever worked in a kitchen knows that it’s hot—and that communication is challenging. When you throw in a mix of folks from many different places … that dynamic has shaped the program in hectic and fabulous ways.”

In turn, enforcing a “leave it at the door” policy has become a key value of the program. If someone in the kitchen isn’t upholding the psychological safety of other participants, they’ll be given a chance to change their behavior—or ultimately be asked to leave. Ironically, the value of the program is perhaps best measured by how many women, even after hitting a rough patch, choose to return.

“Some of the participants we meet were previously working three jobs to support five kids,” Vernon explains. “Joining Comal helps them to not only learn new skills, but also reorganize their entire life experience. You see these lightbulb moments when people come back, because they realize what they can do for themselves and their families.”

Beyond any challenges this international kitchen might face, the varying backgrounds of the participants have another practical advantage: the incredible diversity of cuisines they bring to the table. At first, the program was predominantly populated by immigrants from different regions of Mexico, but has since grown tenfold in its diversity. Most recently, Focus Points has been in touch with a number of refugees from Venezuela, as well as members of the Congolese and Filipino community. Building on this dynamic, every woman in the program learns not only to perfect her own recipes, but also to cook the native cuisines of her peers in the program—often discovering new ingredients or skills in the process.

Olivia Marcano, originally from Bolivar, Venezuela, is looking forward to the opportunity to diversify Denver’s Latin American food scene. Despite working in both Venezuela and the U.S. as a professional cook, Comal is the first place where she has been able to cook her own recipes for restaurant guests.

“This is the best thing that has happened to me in the United States,” Marcano raves. “I have another job, but that’s my job. Comal is a whole other world.” (One bite of her plantains, and visitors to Comal will be offering their own rave reviews!)

In addition to sharing their individual heritage, participants are also trained on how to communicate with guests about the larger values and structure of the program. Vernon vividly recalls a time when a disgruntled lunch guest was wondering “why his food was taking so long.” Instead of addressing the situation himself, Vernon asked the trainee running the kitchen to come and introduce herself. “Our kitchen is wide open for a reason,” Vernon emphasizes. “Anyone can hide behind a keyboard or a position of power, but when they meet the people doing the cooking, they never walk away upset.”

As Comal’s following grows—including national coverage in such magazines as Bon Appetit and on the PBS program “Lidia Celebrates America”—other organizations in Colorado (and beyond!) have inquired about bringing the incubator to other cities. While Vernon notes that Focus Points is excited about the possibility of sharing Comal’s framework, he also emphasizes that “expanding the concept should lead to a reinvestment in the community that came up with the original idea.”

Beyond the delicious diversity and heartfelt mission of Comal, it is perhaps this steadfast, unwavering partnership with the individuals and community behind the concept that makes it most unique.

“There is a lot of social enterprise based on the passion of one person, and when that person leaves, it falls apart,” Vernon reflects. “A few of the ladies from the beginning are still around, giving their feedback and keeping us in line. But we’ve also taken the time to develop structure, policy, procedure and legal protections, because that’s how you build something to last.”

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