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Slow Food Leaders: Arden Lewis

by Julie Kunen, Slow Food USA

Arden Lewis is the Executive Chef of Comal Heritage Food Incubator, a restaurant and catering operation with a mission to provide culinary arts and business skills to immigrant and refugee women in the Denver area. Comal is named for the traditional Mexican griddle on which tortillas are grilled, and the cooks in Comal’s kitchen have brought with them recipes and food traditions not only from Mexico, but from El Salvador, Venezuela, Guatemala, Iraq, Syria and Ethiopia. Comal serves lunch each weekday and caters special events for groups around the city.

A first generation American of West Indian descent, Chef Arden has been with Comal since June and plays a hybrid role — part executive chef and part culinary school director. The learning path is not a one-way channel from teacher to student; as Arden points out, many of the women in the program have been cooking since before he was born. And the education extends to the members of the surrounding community who come to dine on Comal’s food and simultaneously learn about the food heritage of multiple countries.

An Unlikely Beginning

An Ivy League degree in applied math, followed by years working in tech on Wall Street, seems like unusual preparation for a culinary career. Dissatisfied with that path and casting about for another, a friend suggested he become a chef based solely on a single delicious dinner party he recalled Arden had cooked in college. While it sounded far-fetched, Arden began to recall food memories from his youth: his dad, a grill-master who specialized in breakfast, his mom a weekday warrior cooking nightly dinners full of the West Indian flavors of his parents’ Trinidadian & Toboggan homeland. And he decided to see how it felt to work in a commercial kitchen, beginning with a stage at the restaurant B Smith’s, peeling crates of carrots, potatoes and onions three to four days a week and on weekends, while still holding down his Wall Street job.

Dual-tracking was an ongoing motif, as Arden went through culinary school and two years in a restaurant job before saying goodbye to Wall Street forever and committing to the food world full time. Not surprisingly, he soon experienced burnout and took a sabbatical. What was meant to be a summer off turned into two years traveling the world to many interesting culinary destinations — Morocco, France, Thailand, Argentina — that informed his belief that global cuisines and communities have more in common than their differences would lead one to believe.

“We have technology now, but that doesn’t mean we forsake recipes and ingredients from the past. Look at Comal and the participants here — there is a natural tendency towards the natural product, because they come from places without a lot of processed foods or food technology. Places with markets and farming, and we can see a return to that today in the growth in urban farms and in preserving food cultures. ”

A Life-Changing Chickpea

A pivotal moment involves socca, the chickpea flatbread found in the south of France. Arden recalls sitting in a market eating socca and drinking an espresso. While the market itself was frenetic with shoppers, his memory of the experience is a peaceful one and a remembrance of home. Although he had never had socca before, it reminded him of the West Indian roti of his upbringing. In the restaurant and catering career that followed these travels, cultural mash-ups became his culinary signature. Curry was not just curry, but a blend of a coconut-based curry typical of southeast Asia mixed with a Trinidad and Tobago-style curry from a family recipe. Or arepas, not stuffed but rather topped with cucumber raita and chicken vindaloo, served with a hot sauce tribute to his aunt’s blend of mustard, vinegar and scotch bonnet peppers.

Professional cooking was fulfilling, but issues like food waste and economic privilege began to intervene and Arden found himself innovating around seasonality and recycling, doing everything from partnering with a company to recycle the latex gloves and plastic wrap that are ubiquitous in restaurant kitchens to re-purposing tired herbs into flavored oils and vegetable trimmings into edible ash. The social and environmental impacts of cooking and eating were ever present and the role of food in culture and history began to loom larger.

Chef Arden wanted to do more than just serve a dish of food to someone; he wanted to have a larger impact. Then, Comal happened. Comal shares Slow Food’s mission of celebrating foods and foodways from cultures around the world. The immigrant and refugee women who cook at Comal are participants in that experience, not simply hourly workers in a cafe. They are cultural ambassadors to the surrounding community, sharing recipes, techniques, and stories. They cook food that humanizes and equalizes. They show us that foods made by “the average person” are no less valuable than foods from a sophisticated restaurant kitchen. That certain cuisines are no less respected than others: a handmade taco is no less valuable than a dish of handmade pasta. And that as the world modernizes, we do not need to forsake recipes, seasons and seasonality, and ingredients from the past.

Arden returns to the motif of the comal, an essential tool in the Mexican kitchen. While not every kitchen will have a comal, the act of preparing ingredients in a kitchen, of socializing while doing so, eating while discussing the history of someone’s dish, what it was like growing up in the place that she came from, and how foods can make a connection for an immigrant or refugee between the place that she comes from and the place she is now. For Chef Arden Lewis, this is the essence of Slow Food.

Chef Lewis with Comal participants Raymunda Carreon Soto and Silvia Hernandez in their summer garden