A little over two years ago, a group of local women proposed their dream of opening a catering business to Focus Points Family Resource Center. The outcome was Comal Heritage Food Incubator. Here, women have the opportunity to take their own family recipes and elevate them for the restaurant and catering business. Though anyone is welcome to apply, women have been the star of the show since Comal’s opening. The restaurant looks for people who are passionate about cooking and learning to work in a restaurant or own a business.

Comal currently has Mexican, Syrian and Ethiopian women in the kitchen. Chef Tim Bender commented that in their respective cultures, women are not typically business owners – but Comal provides them with the experience and confidence necessary to achieve their dreams. The incubator currently has 13 women in the program, but Bender believes four of them are close to opening their own enterprise.

Chef Tim Bender and the original class of Comal. Photo by Lucy Beaugard.

Bender has worked with the women since Comal’s opening. Looking back on the past two years, Bender insisted that the beauty of Comal is that the women cook their culture’s cuisine with their own recipes. It gives the women a sense of ownership over the restaurant and they are able to expose people to their food – and consequently their culture. “It’s a beautiful thing to see, and its evolved into this really popular thing. I’m so proud, so proud of them,” Bender said.

Many of the women learned to cook from their mothers and grandmothers and they are able to carry on this tradition of cooking at Comal. The food at Comal is not Mexican, Syrian or Ethiopian food you can get anywhere. It’s grandma’s recipes that have been handed down over generations. 

Over the past two years, Comal has put $374,000 in the pockets of participants. But they have also had other wonderful successes. They were on an episode of Top Chef and they are considered one of the best places to get Middle Eastern food in Denver. Some women have left the program to start their own businesses, others cook for popular Denver restaurants such as Safta and one now works at Comal as a manager.

Bender’s passion for Comal is endless. “We’ve been able to be this oasis, like a ray of light for them, to give them something to work towards and to hope for and to unleash their creativity. These ladies are so damn talented, it’s so crazy.”

Seeing the women’s motivation and drive sparked a new excitement in Bender. He commented that working at Comal has “been a beautiful thing for my personal growth. Actually, I’m not sure I can go back to a regular restaurant job after this. It’s changed me that much.” Comal’s community has become a family for so many of the women as they help each other fulfill their dreams. Bender added, “Comal is a very magical place.”

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Walaa Almohamd comes to Comal from the city of Damascus in Syria. In August of 2016, Almohamd moved to Colorado with her parents and found her first job in the US at Comal. She started learning how to cook when she was 14 years old. She comments, “My mom liked to teach me everything because in my culture I have to learn to cook because she said if you want to get married you have to.” Though Almohamd joked that she started cooking to get a husband, her cooking skills have come to great use for her family. Almohamd cooks both for the restaurant and does a lot of catering with Comal. With the money she earns, she supports her whole family, including her younger siblings who are still in Lebanon.

The war in Syria drove Almohamd and her family out of their home country. They hoped to bring the whole family to the United States, but now her siblings can’t join the rest of the family. “It’s hard for us because when we came here we hoped we can bring my family,” Almohamd said, but the Trump administration has made the relocation for Middle Eastern refugees nearly impossible.

It’s clear that Almohamd misses her home in Syria, but she’s grateful for the opportunities she has at Comal. In Syria, she would never have an opportunity to work in a kitchen or learn how to run a business. “[Comal] gives you [a] chance to open your own business in the future because we learn about restaurant and catering,” Almohamd said. “Comal is good for me because I feel like family here, especially with Chef Tim. I like this place.”

Rosa Landa has similar sentiments about her work with Comal. She moved to Denver from the southern part of Mexico 15 years ago. Bender calls her the “utility player” because she’s willing to do anything Comal needs — including organizing the shelves. But her love and talent for cooking is what brought her to the heritage food incubator. Landa began learning to cook when she was six years old. Cooking was a family affair for her family in Mexico, and she learned from everyone — her mom, older sister, uncles, aunts. She explained that in her culture, the kids help out in the kitchen at a young age and work their way up to cooking.

Landa perfected the staples for Mexican cuisine — tortillas, eggs and rice — before she learned the more complicated dishes. Now she can make a wide variety of foods, but her favorite is the pozole tamales. She joked that she liked the color green because she uses so many green ingredients in her food — cilantro, tomatillos, green chilies and serranos.

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“I like my culture,” Landa commented, and she’s excited to share her cuisine and learn new things from others in the program. Landa recently visited some of her family in Mexico and cooked some recipes she learned from other participants. The verdict was positive — her family members, some of whom taught her to cook, enjoyed Landa’s new cooking techniques and recipes.

Like Almohamd, Landa’s mother told her she needed to know how to cook to get married. Now Landa has six kids of her own to whom she has passed on her knowledge. “I teach my daughters and my boy,” Landa said. “It’s tradition.”

Working at Comal helped Landa reach her goal of opening a catering business. Her passion and hardwork inspire her two daughters who are about to graduate from college. Bender explained that “her daughters see that she has so much motivation and drive to come here and that she wants to start her own business,” and they are able to have even bigger dreams than their mom’s. Landa deeply appreciates all that Comal has done for her and her family. She is always trying to recruit people to join the program because she believes in it wholeheartedly. “I like this place, I like the friends, I like this opportunity.”

Comal is open Monday to Friday from 11 a.m to 2 p.m. It serves Hispanic food Monday through Thursday, with an Ethiopian special on Thursday. Friday is dedicated to Middle-Eastern cuisine. The menu changes every day.  Visit Comal’s Facebook page for the menu each day and for more information.

All photography by Brittany Werges, unless otherwise noted. 

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