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From one cocina to the next: my journey from Sun Valley Kitchen to Convivio Café

In 2016, a friend of mine introduced me to Sun Valley Kitchen, a kitchen I would soon come to find as a sparkling warm home of a kitchen for so long. I had recently started teaching adult cooking classes at another nonprofit in Southwest Denver, and my friend thought I may be interested in expanding my teaching and volunteership with kiddos in Sun Valley, a nearby neighborhood. After meeting Glenn Harper, Director and Founder of Sun Valley Kitchen (SVK) and above all community warrior extraordinaire, it didn’t take long for me to say yes to this exciting opportunity to share with a new community. I dusted off my elementary school teacher brain and planned for the first class.

The format was pretty straight forward - Each week, I brought the lesson plan, menu and ingredients, and with the help of volunteers and teenage mentors, we made healthy meals with elementary kiddos in the neighborhood and shared them with the community.

The learning curve, however, was not always so straight forward. Finding the finesse of the right cooking steps (not too complicated nor too simple for the kiddos), the right healthy ingredients (beets in a red velvet cake can be easily hidden, but black beans in brownies - how dare you!?), and the right new flavors (appetizing to kiddos, but easy enough to recreate at home).

As far as the dishes I created, I’ll tell you it was no holds barred with their opinions on some of my choices when trying to sneak healthy hacks into traditional yummies. “Miss Vivi, can you please not put cucumber on my chocolate cake?” For the record, it was zucchini and chocolate cake, but I get where she was coming from.

Every Saturday was basically controlled chaos: Daisy and I would prepare the kitchen, ingredients and volunteers. Glenn would make his recruitment rounds of the neighborhood, a bit like the pied piper, knocking on every door with warm invitations and returning with with a dozen, twenty, sometimes twenty-six elementary kiddos in tow. Some even brought their younger siblings along. Let’s just say I was not the only one using the stepping stools to reach the goods in the kitchen.

To start, we sat around a communal table over snacks (can’t start with empty stomachs), discussed the Quote of the Day, introduced the menu and the new ingredients. We washed our hands and always started with the essential knife skills - how to use it properly (not for pointing at people, please), how to hold it when cutting, where to put it when you’re done (never in the soapy water). Then, it’s aprons on and go time. Chop, grate, mix, stir, play and share.

In a mere hour we had a prepared meal, a set table with real plates, forks and napkins, and a few pitchers with milk and water.

Like I said, controlled chaos. Or perhaps, let’s call it chaotic magic.

Of course we can’t forget the time ‘round the table eating together, where we all share - “What I made today was….” or “The new ingredient I tried today was…” This time was so precious to me as I could teach the kiddos the value of sharing with others over a table of delicious and healthy (most of the time) food.

These years of cooking with kiddos from around the world have taught me a few important lessons with a sometimes steep learning curve. First, NEVER use melted chocolate to cover frozen bananas (a traditional Guatemalan snack, choco-banano); it only leads to melted chocolate everywhere, including the ceiling. Also, learn to correctly spell the kiddos’ names on their nametags, and take the time to memorize their family unit and home country; it can be challenging, but is immeasurably worth it. Finally, creating a menu that’s fun, delicious to kids, healthy and halal-friendly, all while keeping the portion sizes right, IS AN ART. Also, keep a keen eye out for those littles that are ready to “help the big kids” on the oven or stove in the industrial kitchen.

The kids are brilliant, curious and hungry. Most of them have an immigrant background, just like me. Many speak little English, and often with an accent, just like me. And they all have a story of learning how to fit in and understand the American culture, just like me. I remember when some kids realized I too had an accent, or that I was from Guatemala. “Miss Vivi, where is that on the map?”

One of my happiest memories as an immigrant and now American citizen is sharing my citizenship celebration cake, decorated with both Guatemalan and US flags, with the kids. A little later, I got to share in the same happiness for one of the kids who had their own citizenship ceremony. The bond that unites us all: food.

I got to see these kids grow, literally. Saturday after Saturday and year after year, I learned more about the Sun Valley community. I met siblings parents and guardians. I celebrated birthdays and graduations. I learned more about the effects of food insecurity. All in this amazing, tight-knit, diverse community hidden behind the Bronco football stadium.

I also got to see myself grow. In addition to the classes I volunteer taught, I participated in a series of cultural cooking class exchanges with other immigrant chefs. I assisted my Jordanian friend in executing her menu of the best falafel in Denver. When asked how she had learned to cook, she responded “YouTube, of course!” For many new Americans, migration can be one of your best and harshest teachers. With another community chef, I had a first-row seat learning how to make the most delicious Somali lentil soup. I also got scolded (sweetly) many times by some Vietnamese ladies for my lack of technique when rolling eggrolls (never quite perfect). I snuck out often from my downtown job at the time to eat the lunch specials from community chefs on Thursdays at SVK. I even got to share a bit about Guatemalan cuisine to curious friends and neighbors of the kitchen.

The Sun Valley Kitchen, no doubt, was my happy place. A happy place where I got my first real experience in a full-on commissary kitchen, restaurant and community center. As a self-taught cook, it was a very new, different world.

In 2020 I was working for an Immigration Law Firm and still volunteering (and eating!) regularly at the SVK. I clearly remember having our last cooking class on March 18th; I shared my abuela’s very special pancake recipe for brunch (don’t tell my sisters). Afterward, I received an email saying SVK would be closed for 2 weeks. Then another email asking for donations for the food pantry. Then, I got furloughed from my job. It was an easy decision for me to dedicate more of my time volunteering at SVK on Wednesdays and Saturdays while my job situation was sorted out.

At the same time, in the middle of all this uncertainty, I decided there was no better time than now to follow my dream of opening a women-owned, fully-bilingual, Guatemala inspired café - Convivio Café. My business partner Kristin and I had talked about the idea for years, and now I had the time to work on the idea while the rest of the world and my life was in limbo.

Start a small business smack dab in the middle of a pandemic? Yup, been there done that.

I remember nervously presenting, for the first time ever, our official Convivio Café pitch deck to Glenn and Daisy, over zoom nonetheless. I love that they were the first to hear it, and they gave great feedback, connections, ideas and lots of encouragement to go forward.

A little later, Glenn let me know SVK received a grant for a full-time position to run the Healthy Food for Denver Kids program at SVK. And they wanted me to apply. Me? Work full time time at SVK? Keep hanging out with these kids I had literally grown with and expand to virtual cooking classes, youth employment programs, and the No Cost Grocery program? This job would allow me to have some paid, passion work during the pandemic while we sorted out our café plans - establishing partnerships with farmers in Guatemala and Nicaragua, starting online sales of our delicious coffee, popping up at farmers markets, and looking for our perfect brick-and-mortar location.

I took the job, and committed to at least a year, with the caveat that once Convivio Café took off, I would need to move one. Glen was totally on board, and our biggest cheerleader. After all, they were the same friends encouraging me to ‘go for it’ with Convivio, dream big and keep on working hard.

So here I am today, after sharing the last six years of my life with one kitchen at SVK, transitioning to a new kitchen at Convivio Café. I have gained, if only by osmosis, some of that brilliant entrepreneur energy that runs around SVK. I built the confidence and ganas (as we say in Guatemala for that elusive idea of grit) to be a Community Chef, a cook with aspirations and dreams to share my culture, my recipes, and my creativity. I was groomed to bring that energy to a new space with the inclusive ethos as the SVK. I am so very grateful to Glenn, Amos, Daisy and all the community at SVK that has cheered me on at both the SVK kitchen and the Convivio kitchen, and I cannot wait to host my friends at our café.

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