Guest post by Olivia Conrad
Sun Valley Kitchen and Community Center is located on Decatur St. in Sun Valley, Denver, a neighborhood nestled in between I-25 and Federal boulevard, capped by Mile High stadium and 6th avenue in the North and South. Historically, Sun Valley has been regarded as one of the lowest income neighborhoods in Denver.
A 7-Eleven and a small corner store on Decatur St. were previously the only locations Sun Valley residents could purchase groceries. Consequently, access to fresh, nutritious foods was limited. That is, until 2012, when Glenn Harper, a Sun Valley local, purchased the space that previously served as the Decatur corner store. Known for his fresh cut french fries, Glenn Harper had a dream to revive the space and turn it into a hub that could bring not only delicious, fresh food, but also a sense of community, to residents of the neighborhood. In October 2018, Glenn’s vision came to fruition with the opening of Sun Valley Kitchen. Today, the kitchen serves as a breakfast and lunch cafe during the weekdays, and a community kitchen that hosts events on evenings and weekends.
When one visits Sun Valley Kitchen, they can’t miss the large posters decorated with inspirational quotes that cover the back corner of the space. “We believe there is power in the words we speak and surround ourselves with,” says Daisy Wiberg, Director of Sun Valley Kitchen and Community Center. The quotes are used as a discussion topic with the children who attend the Youth Enrichment Program every Saturday. “We have one of the kids read the quote out loud for the group and then we discuss what it means to them,” explains Wiberg. The quote wall embodies the ongoing mission of Sun Valley Kitchen, which is to positively impact the Sun Valley community and empower Sun Valley residents. Ultimately, the Kitchen aims to bring people together through good food and camaraderie.
With a mission centered on community engagement, Sun Valley Kitchen provides a number of opportunities for Sun Valley Residents. . The Youth Professional Development Program offers employment and training in practical job skills for young men and women living in the neighborhood. Currently, the Kitchen employs two local youths who work at the restaurant before and after school. “The most rewarding part of [the Kitchen] has been providing employment opportunities for residents and youth from the Sun Valley community,” says Wiberg. “Not only does working at the Kitchen provide them with an income for their families, but it provides a place of community and support.”
Sun Valley Kitchen also offers the Chef Entrepreneurship Program, that intends to highlight cuisine from the local region of Sun Valley immigrants, and provide them with kitchen and business skills to take with them into the professional workplace. As a part of the Entrepreneurship Program, the Kitchen features the full lunch menu of a local chef every Thursday and encourages local chefs to lead cooking classes for anyone who may be interested in learning about a new dish or a new cuisine. Proceeds from these events go to supporting the chef in his/her food business ventures.
Now, cut to a rainy Sunday evening in August when we gathered at Sun Valley Kitchen, excited to partake in a Guatemalan cooking class led by Vivi Lemus, a long-time volunteer.
Vivi, originally from Guatemala, runs the Youth Enrichment Program at Sun Valley Kitchen. The program caters primarily to Elementary and Middle School children and focuses on exposing local youth to a variety of foods and cuisines, as well as providing them with practical cooking skills. With the children, Chef Vivi typically likes to showcase a healthy twist on a well-known treat, such as black bean-based chocolate cake.
With the same eagerness as the children Vivi typically works with, we gathered around in the commercial kitchen space as Vivi described what we would be making that night: Pepián, a traditional Guatemalan stew made from chicken, toasted seeds, and roasted vegetables. And it didn’t stop there, we were preparing a full feast. Other items on the menu for the evening included “Black Beans Guate Style,” Seasoned rice, Fried Plantains, and Guatemalan-style tortillas.
We broke off into groups of two, rolling up our sleeves. One team was tasked with chopping the garlic and onion, which would be used to infuse flavor into the Pepián, rice, and black beans. Another team chopped carrots, potatoes, and green beans for the stew. Meanwhile, in another part of the kitchen, a pair prepared Guatemalan tortillas, gently forming the soft masa flour into petite rounds; these would later be toasted on the flat top. Simultaneously, on a stove-top nearby, the Guatemalan-style refried beans were prepared: sauteed garlic and onion were hand-blended with slow-cooked black beans in a large pot, along with a generous serving of salt.
To make the Pepián, chicken was heated in a pot along with carrot, garlic, and onions. Green beans and diced potatoes were added to the pot next, and this all simmered while whole tomatoes, bell peppers, tomatillos, pasilla chilies, and more garlic and onion were dry roasted until all were gently charred. Next, sesame and pumpkin seeds were toasted in a cast-iron pan, filling the air with a comforting nutty aroma; these would be used to thicken the stew.
Plantains were sliced into thin rounds and fried in a cast-iron pan using plenty of canola oil. A sweet aroma crept up from the pan as the plantains browned. Meanwhile, white rice was combined with water and yet another healthy portion of sauteed onion and garlic; this all simmered gently in a covered pot while the Pepián was finished. The dry roasted vegetables and toasted seeds were thoroughly blended with chicken broth, chilies, and fresh cilantro. The resulting silky, red sauce was returned to a pot with more chicken broth, succulent pieces of slow-cooked chicken, and tender potatoes, carrots and green beans.
We cooked tirelessly for about 2 hours. Some of us knew each other, but some of us had also met for the first time that night, and as aromas of simmering chicken broth and dry-roasted tomatillos filled the kitchen, so too did laughter, conversation, and human connection. And before we knew it, it was time to eat what we had all worked together to create.
We proudly emerged from the kitchen together, each bringing a nicely-plated dish to the table that Daisy and Glenn had set for us; it was dressed with a neat white cloth and several vases of delicate flowers. As the Cranberries “Dreams” played in the background, we dug in.
Chef Vivi joined us at the table and looked on proudly as we remarked about each component of the feast. It was one of those meals in which every dish tasted fantastic on its own, but it was just as delicious when a little bit of everything was included in each bite. The Pepián took center stage on each of our plates, while the seasoned rice and tortillas provided the perfect companions for the stew. Per Chef Vivi’s recommendation, we enjoyed the Black Beans Guate Style with feta cheese on top. The salty, tangy character of the feta played perfectly with the silky texture and earthy flavor of the beans. And finally, we enjoyed the fried plantains with sour cream and cinnamon sugar on top; this was true love at first bite for us all.
Upon finishing our meal, we all packed up leftovers in take-out containers, excited to bring our delicious feast to loved ones back home. The hearty stew and savory side dishes had been the perfect dinner for a drizzly Sunday afternoon. We thanked Chef Vivi tirelessly, and trickled home with full stomachs and full smiles.
The cooking class at Sun Valley Kitchen had brought together old friends and strangers alike. And while we all greatly enjoyed the experience, what made it even more special was knowing that the proceeds from the evening were ultimately going to support the Sun Valley Community.
For those interested in becoming involved, Sun Valley welcomes volunteers in a variety of areas, including assistance in preparing the community dinner, which occurs every weeknight from 3:30-6:60 pm, preparation and clean-up for the bi-weekly No-Cost Grocery Program, and helping with the kids cooking classes on Saturdays from 12-3 pm. And it doesn’t stop there, true to their mission, Glenn and Daisy are happy to take on and lead other endeavors that serve to better the community, “We are always open to hosting groups for community clean-up projects, garden workdays [at the community garden], or food prep activities outside of the ongoing volunteer opportunities,” says Wiberg.
Coming up in October, The Same Plate and Sun Valley Kitchen are co-hosting a Vietnamese cooking class, followed by a Cuban cooking class in November. Details and registration information can be found here. We can’t wait for you to join us!