While a lot of restaurants have changed their menus during the pandemic, adjusted formats or switched up service, few have completely altered their mission and found a new purpose.
At downtown Denver’s Dairy Block, the space that previously operated as Bruto has done just that. After sitting unused for months, owner Kelly Whitaker recently reopened the restaurant as an “advocacy kitchen,” where chefs can utilize the public platform to cook and converse with diners, who are able to share in their passion and message.
Leading up to the November election, that message has become increasingly more focused.
Taj Cooke is the first chef to take over Bruto’s kitchen and dining space, where he’s preparing Jamaican Ital (pronounced eye-tal) dinners, or vegan Rastafarian food. Cooke says the cuisine — made with fresh vegetables, beans and rices, savory spices and native fruits such as mango and coconut — is based on the Rastafari concept of livity.
It’s meant to be “everything positive and everything from the earth,” he said. “If it doesn’t give you positive energy, it’s not going to be on your plate.” But Cooke also recognizes that positivity isn’t always easy to come by these days. And in that case, “positivity is the ultimate form of protest,” he added.
At the Ital dinners, Cooke and his assembled team of chefs and Bruto staffers encourage diners to vote, and they also introduce attendees to the local farmers who supply produce for these meals. While not explicitly stated, questions of food access and sustainability in farming and restaurants provide a backdrop for the dinners. And this week, the chef has created a dinner and a movie package for diners to pick up a Fall Harvest Bowl from the restaurant and view the new Netflix documentary “Kiss the Ground” while they eat.
“This whole advocacy kitchen is built upon giving chefs an opportunity to sell their food and speak their mind,” Cooke said. “I’m trying to just open people’s minds when it comes to food. I’m trying to inform the community, to connect the community and work with the community.”
But alongside advocacy for small farms and healthful food, Cooke is keenly aware of his role as a Black chef in Denver during a pivotal election year.
“If you’re going to be a part of the community, you have to make sure that you’re a part of the whole community,” Cooke explained.
For example, he is a “six-foot-two, Rasta man, with a Black wife, and these are things that we can’t run from,” Cooke said. “Right now, as chefs and owners and restaurateurs and individuals in this business, we can’t run away, we can’t just sit aside and we can’t continue to straddle the line.”
He’s talking about politics, of course. Last week, along with 19 other local restaurant business owners and chefs, Cooke and his wife Danielle signed their names to an open letter endorsing Joe Biden for president, which they submitted to The Denver Post.
“We fear not only for our businesses, which face unprecedented uncertainty, but also for our employees, especially our employees of color,” the letter read. “While the White House refuses to acknowledge the severity of our current crisis, back in the real world small businesses like ours are suffering.”
“That letter basically shows a group of individuals coming together and using our voices,” Cooke explained, adding that he was a little disappointed that more restaurant owners didn’t sign on, though he understands the concern of losing patrons at an already desperate moment for business. For him, the cause is too important to ignore.
“Right now, us as a community, we have to look at what’s at hand,” Cooke said. “If we can pivot in a way where we can help out at the same time, that’s what we should do. People out there are listening.”
How to get involved
To check out Bruto’s and chef Taj’s upcoming events, head to exploretock.com/bruto-denver. Also be on the lookout for Cooke’s Thanksgiving feast, which will donate meals to 1,000 Denverites in need.
For other ways that food and beverage businesses are getting involved, check out restaurantsrallythevote.com, where more than 100 Colorado hospitality businesses have made a non-partisan pledge to “ensure that the voices of this industry are represented in the 2020 election.”
And find local breweries participating in Tap the Vote, which is another non-partisan effort encouraging craft beer drinkers to register and vote on Nov. 3.
Check with individual businesses for registration and voting specials on food and drinks.
Subscribe to our new food newsletter, Stuffed, to get Denver food and drink news sent straight to your inbox.