The Dish on Jensen Cummings, CRA's Philanthropist Award Winner
As chef at the now-defunct Row 14, Jensen Cummings was used to being asked to participate in charity events; out of 150 requests, he did 31 events in 2013. And even as he made plans to open his own spot, the Slotted Spoon Meatball Eatery, at 2730 South Colorado Boulevard, he was thinking there had to be a better way for restaurants to work with nonprofits. So when Slotted Spoon opened in February 2013, it did so with a Heroes Against Hunger essay contest with a local school; the three fifth-graders who wrote the winning essays were honored at the restaurant's opening festivities. A few months later, Cummings hosted a block party benefiting three nonprofits with Jeff Osaka, Matt Selby, Tyler Wiard, Brandon Foster and Daniel Asher (all chefs renowned for their charitable efforts), where kids could show off produce they'd grown. And that wasn't the only thing growing that summer: Cummings had just learned that he and his wife, an events manager, were having a son, and that news and the success of the party provided the catalyst to turn Heroes Against Hunger into Heroes Like Us, a full-fledged nonprofit that could focus on helping restaurants work better with nonprofits -- and vice versa. "Independently owned restaurants, which take the biggest burden in these nonprofit events, are essentially nonprofits themselves," Cummings points out.
Jensen Cummings, chef and founder of Heroes Like Us.
See also: The Dish on Paul and Aileen Reilly, CRA's Best Newcomers Award-Winners
The first step was to "let the nonprofits know there has to be a better way. It can't be this obligatory handout that's been the norm for so long," Cummings remembers. "In our first year of Heroes, we did a lot of exploring and working with a multitude of nonprofits, all in the realm of food/health/wellness and children. We wanted to work with nonprofits to promote better practices to attract the culinary community, and also for us to understand how the culinary community could have a bigger impact."
Slotted Spoon Meatball Eatery.
The impact of Heroes Like Us was enough for Cummings to be honored with the Colorado Restaurant Association's Philanthropist Signature Dish Award in April 2014.
Before 2014 ends, Heroes Like Us will have worked on 45 events, "a big number for our first year," Cummings says, and those events will gross $1.5 million. But that figure is "gross," he emphasizes: "We're working with the nonprofits to get better at that net number, to operate more as businesses do." And in the next year, Heroes will work at focusing its efforts, going deeper rather than further, bringing together the culinary community, nonprofits and the general public "and tying a nice bow around it," Cummings promises.
But Heroes Like Us isn't the only project Cummings has in his package. He's been working with the BSide, a beer-centric eatery that Justin Lloyd of Star Bar and partners are opening this week in Uptown, and things are rolling at the Slotted Spoon. Then there's his own growing family, and the growing restaurant family in Denver. "What's interesting about our industry is that it is so diverse," Cummings says. "Each of us is working toward similar goals with different tactics."
We talked to Cummings, as well as other CRA winners about those goals. Here are his answers:
What was your first restaurant job?
When I graduated high school in San Diego, I went to Ames, Iowa, to work in my uncle's restaurant for the summer -- mostly to meet college girls and party a bit. I had no idea I would make that summer job washing dishes into a career.
When did you realize you would make your career in the restaurant industry?
I should have known from a young age, since my family had been restaurateurs since 1900 in the States -- and our family had culinary ties even long before that in France. I am now the fifth consecutive generation of culinarians in my family. Even my younger brother is a chef and worked with me for years here in Denver. Anyway, it was about a year into working at my uncle's sports bar, Wallaby's, and I had already moved from dish to running the wheel. That was the moment I knew I loved being in the industry. That is when I started saving money to go to culinary school. I haven't looked back since.
What made you decide to make Colorado the focus of that career?
I had moved to Kansas City to open a restaurant as exec sous when I was only 22. I also worked for famed chef Debbie Gold in Kansas City. My now-wife was finishing school at Iowa State, and we were talking about our plans after she graduated. Her brother had moved out to Boulder the year before, and Betsy came to visit. She got back and said, "We're moving to Colorado!" That was it. I started researching chef-driven restaurants in Denver. We moved out in August 2007. I only interviewed with three chefs: Kevin Taylor, Jennifer Jasinski and Jean-Phillipe Failyau (when he was still at Mizuna); I knew I wanted to work for that caliber of chef. I took the job as sous-chef with Kevin Taylor and soon moved to exec chef at Kevin Taylor's at the Opera House.
What was the dining scene like when you got your start here?
It was very classic American and European. Solid, but waiting for a spark. My Japanese heritage, being raised in Germany and an adolescence in Southern California left me searching for some more cultural diversity in the chef-driven dining scene.
Keep reading for more from Jensen Cummings.