The Heart of Great Food & Community

Chef Tajahi Cooke

Article by Allison Bankston

Photography by Rachel Audette, The Turquoise Camera

Originally published in Arvada Lifestyle

My grandmother, who made the most amazing biscuits I have ever tasted, was my hero in the kitchen. She would labor all day on an amazing, comforting meal that we would gobble down in minutes. She used to say you can tell when a person cooks with love and from the heart. You feel it. You sense the passion and the intent, and my grandmother was right. 

Even before tasting his dishes, I sensed that same intent and heart from Chef Tajahi Cooke. Within a few minutes of conversation, I felt as though I had been given a gift. Chef Taj, as most folks call him, was born in Kingston, Jamaica and came to the U.S. when he was nine. His father was a tour manager for high-profile musicians, and Taj spent a lot of time on the road with his dad. “We used to come to Colorado, and I fell in love with the region. I dropped out of school when I was 18 or 19, unsure of what to do with my life.”

Like many young people, Taj dabbled in lots of things. It wasn’t until he was sharing his grandmother’s recipes with his wife, Danielle, that he realized cooking brought him his true joy. Danielle told him, “You’re good at everything, but when you cook, you’re happy.” 

Taj tells the story of a party the couple hosted. He made what was supposed to be jerk chicken and habanero mash potatoes. “We had a gallon of milk, and that still didn’t affect it,” he shared, laughing. “But our friends kept eating it. The flavors were there–you just had to get past the heat." Taj says when he started giving himself wholly on a plate everything changed.   

So much of Taj’s inspiration comes from his grandmother’s cooking, such as her curry made from scratch. “I matched the flavors, and now we have the blend of spices in the family again.” Taj recreated the dish so well, when his father tasted it, his dad was brought to tears. Chef Taj went on to sell the curry blend under the brand Ms. Betty’s Curry. 

Danielle is originally from Colorado. The loving couple works together on many projects that help others. That desire to improve people’s lives is at the core of everything Taj does. It feeds his soul as strongly and as vitally as oxygen fuels his body.  

Taj is the chef at the BKFST Club in Freedom Street Social and consulting chef for the food hall. He’s also one of the owners of Chef Kitchen. Through the Chef Kitchen Residency Program, each appointed chef spends a month showcasing their unique dishes while receiving mentoring. “It’s about improving the industry and providing opportunities people might not otherwise have as chefs early in their careers.”  

Taj strives to use his success to positively influence the industry. “I think we can do more with the voice and the attention we receive, to impact our community in beautiful ways.” 

Both Taj and Danielle learned from a young age that giving back is important. Taj’s grandmother, Betty, was a midwife in Kingston, while Danielle’s aunts often took in at-risk youth, becoming second parents to more than 30 teens who otherwise did not have a stable home situation.

This will be the 4th year Taj and his team will provide meals for people at Thanksgiving through Ms. Betty’s Harvest Madsgiving. In partnership with the Salvation Army, this year’s goal is to provide 10,000 meals.  

Food isn’t the only way their efforts reach people. Taj’s mother went to prison for drug trafficking when he was seven, and the neighborhood kids were cruel and tormented him over it. To lift his spirits, every holiday, his uncle would give him a great haircut. “It changed my energy, so now we do that for others.” Two brothers help with the free haircuts each year–Joey Romero who is the barber for the Colorado Rockies and owner of Crisp Barber Shop in Lakewood and Louie Romero, the barber for the Denver Broncos and owner of Fade Barber Shop in Arvada. 

Taj says money is never the biggest motivator. “I don’t believe we should live in our community and profit from it without bettering it. I’m just a kid from Kingston, a kid from the streets that my village raised. Danielle and I came from amazing people, and we want to continue sharing that love.”

For more information on how you can help, visit firesideatfive.com/thanksgiving,

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