At the Table with Black Chefs Three Denver Chefs Living their Dream
Just over 50 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his immortal “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington. He spoke of equality and freedom for all Americans. He also noted that Black mobility spanned one ghetto to another, and that as a race; we were still crippled by the manacles of segregation and discrimination. Since that historical day, his words have driven generations to pursue education, professions and businesses that would lead them to greater prosperity.
Many times, that means traveling your own special path to live your dreams as exemplified by Chefs Daniel Young, Scott Durrah, and Donald James.
Chef Daniel Young
Chef Daniel Young, also known as Chef D, lists among his past and present clients, former Denver Nuggets players Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups. As a personal chef, he has cooked meals and designed nutrition plans for members of the National Football League, Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League. At almost any time of the year, he can turn on the TV to watch a game and see the results of his trade in the performance of his clients.
Like other trades, there are formal schools and the school of experience and hard knocks. Young picked up a knife at a young age and followed in the footsteps of his father, who worked as a chef in schools and colleges throughout the state of Michigan. Because his father traveled for his job, the young Daniel prepared many of the meals at home for his five brothers and sisters. Seeing his talent, his father encouraged him as a teenager and eventually took him on the road. At 18 he says he dove right into it.
Donald Frazier, a New-York based chef, met Young in segregated Battle Creek, Michigan and became his mentor, arranging for a scholarship to a culinary school in New York. But Young didn't take to the formal training and embarked on a 10-year apprenticeship. He landed in Denver working at the Denver Country Club under a chef who didn’t like him in his kitchen.
Young says that Frazier “made me very aware of the glass ceiling that I was running in to. I would insist on working in the best restaurants, country clubs hotels and there were just not a lot of Black opportunities at the time. He encouraged me to stay true to the trade and not get discouraged. He said it was probably going to take me longer to reach my goals than the average chef, but thought I was talented enough and said I just had to fight through it.”
Most restaurants were unwilling to tie their name and food reputation to an African American. Young says the time at the Denver Country Club was probably the worst six months of his life. He eventually secured his first management chef position at a sports club in Irvine, CA – a popular spot for celebrities and athletes. It was at that time he first considered meeting the needs of this client base as a business. Young, a former hurdler who almost made the 1984 Olympic trials, understood how to marry nutrition and physical activity.
The buzz about his talent made its way around the Los Angeles Rams training camp, specifically that some of the players, including quarterback Jim Everett, were training with a chef. In 1992, Young became the youngest senior chef inducted into the Orange County Chefs Association. But despite the accolades, and having the title of executive chef, at times it was difficult in his kitchen. One day the food and beverage director put a Ku Klux Klan hat on his timecard. The ownership passed it off as an irresponsible joke. He was offended and his staff was offended by the manner in which the incident was not addressed. Young decided to leave. He knocked the wall down of the social stigma of being the “N” word in the kitchen. Something he had owned up until that point in his career.
“Orange County was a stepping stone for me,” Young says, who admits the gesture hurt him. But he decided “I wasn't going to let it hurt me anymore. That was so in my face, and I thought I‘ve got to have some pride here. I had to walk away.”
Young returned to Denver, and was hired by the University of Colorado Boulder to coach a hurdler, Donna Waller. While working with her, she won both the indoor and outdoor Big 8 championships. Recognizing that he had struck a chord, Young started marketing himself as a chef whose culinary skills enhanced the nutrition and performance of athletes.
Young is all about helping his clients. With more than 31 years in the culinary industry he has developed a keen understanding of what it takes to be a successful chef. He has prepared food for thousands at the 2012 Democratic National convention in Charlotte, hundreds for the Obama inaugural dinner, and private meals for professional athletes. He has also owned two restaurants in Denver, Diced Onions and Fat Daddy’s – but he has found another calling.
Most recently he has ventured into the food delivery service. Under the brand Chef D’Pure, meals are prepared in a commercial kitchen and delivered to customers over a 350-mile radius in Colorado. His offerings include fresh healthy, restaurant quality food that retains its quality even after it has been microwaved. And it is delivered to their doorstep by 6 a.m. Young says he spent years looking at this side of the industry, before presenting a product he could consistently provide. This is not a diet plan, which he abhors. Rather he adapts and customizes to his clients’ lifestyles versus giving them one.
Now in his 50s, Young has not slowed down. He keeps moving and is busy everyday taking care of his athletes and other businesses and clients. He is passionate about sharing his knowledge with other chefs and is scheduled to speak to a class at Johnson and Wales University early next year. He dispels the mythology of the tyrant chef and says he learns something new everyday and he will always remain true to the trade.
Johnson says, “The private chef industry is still a mystery to a lot of people. Where are the guidelines? Where is the structure? And you really make your own structure. I think there is a level of respect that you have to have with your clients to the point they will trust you. For someone to trust you to put something in their mouth – that is the biggest responsibility you can have.”
Chef Scott Durrah
Like Young, Chef Scott Durrah regularly prepared meals for professional athletes throughout his career. For two years he fed the Denver Broncos defense. A good friend of Young, Durrah jokes that Young fed the gazelles and he fed the bulls. The Nuggets would eat 3000 calories a day, whereas, Durrah would feed the Broncos 10,000 calories. Durrah has also owned and operated three highly rated restaurants, the first in Santa Monica, CA and the others in Denver.
The current restaurant, Jezebel’s Southern Bistro and Bar, located in the busy Lo-Hi neighborhood, has been in operation for three years. He and his wife, Wanda James, are known for their pioneering success in the cannabis business and as Colorado’s only African American owners of a dispensary and edibles company.
Durrah’s Boston accent is noticeable as he relates the story about making jam in his Italian grandmother’s kitchen after picking concord grapes from the yard. Laughing, he recalls her walking in on him. “I guess you are going to be a chef,” she said. He took to cooking mostly for his friends throughout his teens. At 18 he headed to Jamaica, and lived there off and on for the next 10 years.
“At that point I worked with a lot of families, a lot of chefs, a lot of Rastafarians, grandmothers, learned all the recipes techniques, jerking and how to make jerk, and really fell in love with it.”
This was probably the only time in his 20-year culinary career that he worked in someone’s kitchen. In 1999, he persuaded his wife to quit her corporate job and open a restaurant with him in Santa Monica. The Los Angeles Times named the Jamaican Café the best Caribbean restaurant in southern California. In Denver they opened 8-Rivers LoDo, another Caribbean restaurant where they also held cooking classes. His restaurants became his learning ground and classroom.
The foundation of Durrah’s cuisine was a marriage of his Italian heritage and his time in Jamaica. 8-Rivers closed in 2011, but he sought other opportunities in other venues. As residents of the LoHi neighborhood, the couple knew it was changing and they opened Jezebel’s, featuring a popular southern cuisine on 33rd and Tejon.
The dispensary and edibles business also made its mark, and continues to evolve. Located a block from Jezebel’s, Simply Pure will offer cannabis cooking classes in a nearby coffee shop early next year.
Durrah’s time with athletes and his time in Jamaica has led him to this new niche. He says Jamaicans, and in particular Rastafarians have been cooking with cannabis (the whole plant) for eons, and while there, he learned of its medicinal benefits. Prescription drugs are a daily regimen for many, but overtime many no longer want them because of long-term effects or they inhibit day-to-day functioning. Durrah has found cannabis can be a balance and alternative to these meds.
The usage of cannabis he teaches is not about getting high, and his great stories about cannabis edibles don’t involve brownies. “Unfortunately my great stories are about the people I’ve cooked for who have had serious dying ailments, from cancer, multiple sclerosis, to migraines, to PMS, to inflammation, to insomnia. I don't get the calls of, ‘Hey I got friends coming over.’ I get the calls of, ‘Hey I am in chemo, and I am sick of this.’ Or I get the calls, ‘I am 50 years old and I am a very successful business person, I can't take prescription drugs the rest of my life.’ ”
While working with athletes he did a lot of juicing and preparation of organic foods. He noticed a marked effect on their ailments and performance. This led him to further examine on a culinary level the medicinal effects of other foods. He says every oil has a medicinal effect. The benefits of olive oil are well known, but Durrah notes that coconut oil is good for inflammation
Simply Pure products use infused butters and oils and range from marinara sauces to mango chutney, to curry and chili pastes that can be added to cooking. Helping people understand the benefits and uses of cannabis in this way, as a balance to other meds, is Durrah’s passion.
“That's really what it’s about at the end of the day – whether you are cooking chicken or cooking cannabis. If you have a purpose, everyone is going to have an opinion. And opinions are fine. My opinion is I have cooked for people who are dying, and I’ve cooked for people who are in pain. I’ve cooked for people who have migraine headaches and seizures and I have seen the results – and the results are all yes. It does help. It doesn't cure, but it does help. Truly if you are looking for a better way of life and you do have some ailments it is a consideration. And cannabis, along with good healthy food, will help you feel better.”
Durrah is definitely a risk-taker and believes that business-owners of products that the public consume is key. “We ask for your support. Come tour the dispensary, ask questions, and get answers. It’s recreational for 21 and over. Come meet me and my wife.”
Chef Donald James
Chef Donald James is known for his smoked meats, turkey and ribs often found at seasonal festivals like Juneteenth, the Colorado Black Arts Festival and Five Points Jazz. He became interested in cooking at an early age. He recalls one Thanksgiving when at the age of six, when he made butter by shaking heavy cream in a mason jar for three hours.
After graduating from Montbello High School, James headed to Bethune-Cookman College to study hospitality and business. He found he wasn't ready for higher education and only stayed a year and spent the next few years traveling to states where he had family. Eventually he ended up in his birthplace of Omaha, Nebraska, where he took culinary training at the Aramark Advanced Culinary in Lincoln.
His company Pit Stop BBQ provides the meat for seasonal festivals, but if you have dined at The Grubbery, 8-Rivers LoDo, or the Peoria Bar and Grill in the Timbers Hotel, you have also tasted his dishes. He recently took the position as executive chef at the Holiday Inn Stapleton. James has also accompanied Young to cook for the Denver Nuggets. He feels fortunate to have had great mentors in his career who have shown him the ropes to success in the industry.
James intends to maximize the opportunity and mesh it with his future goals of finishing a business degree at Community College of Denver, obtaining a master’s degree in culinary and opening his own restaurant. From each culinary job experience he has taken that knowledge and moved forward.
“I got rewards everywhere and I can't say one is better than the other. It just comes with the process of being well rounded. Regardless of the position there will always be hard work that you have to put your heart in to. You’ve got to have a passion for it,” says James, who has been mentored by Young, Durrah and Joseph B. Wesley, a chef at the Timbers.
In a novel take on paying it forward as he has an idea to leverage technology to create an online chef association where chefs can network, find work and clients can post jobs to bid on.
So you think you can cook and want to be a chef? It’s more than impressing with fancy sauces and dishes. The profession requires humility, risk and drive to make a difference to your craft. Martin Luther King Jr. said in his famous speech, “We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity in this nation.” These chefs are to be applauded for drawing from that vault and making their own deposits in their own special way.