Since Tajahi Cooke wrapped up his recent Advocacy Kitchen series at BRUTØ, he’s been busy with yet another community project. Next Thursday, he and a dedicated team will hand-deliver just shy of 2,000 Thanksgiving meals to communities in Grand Lake and across the Denver metro. Food will be prepared by three separate teams — with full takeovers of the kitchens at Broadway Market, Junction Food Hall and the Daven Haven Lodge. Close to a dozen sponsors — including D’Artagnan, Rebel Farm and River Bear — have all been galvanized, contributing cash, time and hundreds of pounds of meat. Individual donations have led a GoFundMe to twice exceed its goal, with Cooke having no trouble adding additional organizations and shelters to a boundless pool of worthy recipients. A crack team of volunteers — including Jesusio Silva, who will lead the Broadway Kitchen, and Daven co-owners Dustin and Patrick Barnes — comprise chefs, cooks, delivery drivers and two mountain fire departments.
Cooke and his wife Danielle have been doing large scale Thanksgivings for the last decade. Prior to last year, the duo would serve between 30 – 75 of their friends, neighbors and acquaintances from their home kitchen. “It started when my neighbor and their neighbors started talking about the rastaman down the street who gave food away for free,” grinned Cooke. In 2019, the chef formalized the event — distributing just over 500 meals from Broadway Market. This is set to be the second year of what Cooke says will be an annual tradition that will remain for the foreseeable future.
The project is an enormous undertaking, though by every indication Cooke has humanitarianism in his blood. He is the son of Albert “Papa Pretty” Cooke — a former tour manager whose clients included The Fugees, Spearhead, Dave Matthews and Damian Marley. “He was one of the first cats to bring Wu-Tang to East Oakland,” said Cooke. Papa Pretty has long been known for his generosity and civic-mindedness — he’s currently working on building a computer lab in Maverley, the neighborhood in Kingston where the younger Cooke spent his first decade. Though it’s Papa Pretty’s mother, affectionately dubbed Ms. Betty, who is Cooke’s original muse. Betty was a celebrated midwife, Cooke says she delivered half of Maverley — her name forever entrenched in local lore. “I’m a tour manager’s son who became a fucking chef. When you come from the music world you come from a community environment. I’m trying to bring that philosophy to food. That’s why I go out of my way to work with so many organizations,” said Cooke. The Thanksgiving project alone would be ample proof, with his role as the general orchestrator for the Advocacy events making it pretty obvious that camaraderie is Cooke’s norm.
Cooke began his culinary path in college. While attending UC Berkely he began working dish and prep at the neighborhood Chinese joint, a position he maintained more or less entirely for the daily allotment of breakfast, lunch, dinner and a late-night snack. He began taking cooking more seriously seven years ago while working under Sal Salazar at The Kitchen and The Kitchen Next Door. After undercooking a piece of poultry, the budding chef was guided rather indelicately to a weighty realization. “He kicked me off my line. I was so mad, I was willing to stab my chef over my station. I went back in and I never fucked up chicken ever again,” laughed Cooke. He’s since helped open Bacon Social House, acted as sous at Block and Larder, worked as chef de cuisine at Mother Tongue — a now-shuttered Turkish concept with Daniel Asher — and opened Tributary Food Hall in Golden.
In 2017, he launched Ms. Betty’s Cooking while serving as the personal touring chef for Rebelution. The brand has since become the umbrella for the various pop-ups, infused dinners and goods that Cooke plans to continue building his career around. He recently debuted Ms. Betty’s Curry — a potent blend the chef attributes to a 400-year family legacy. Wet and dry jerk rubs and a peanut sauce are expected to join the roster soon. True to form, Cooke will be donating 30% of the proceeds to Lambuth Family Center and Mean Street Ministry.
In December, Cooke plans to organize a day in which kids from Lambuth can hit Fade Barbershop for a free holiday trim — another event he coined last year. “We built it all on community, on honesty, on truth and on transparency,” said Cooke. The chef is already beginning work on a bed and breakfast in Jamaica that will open as an extension of Ms. Betty’s Cooking. While the spot isn’t set to be active for another five years, it’s clear that whatever Cooke gets up to in the meantime, plenty of people will flourish as a result.
Donate to Ms. Betty’s Thangksgiving’s GoFundMe here.
Information regarding Cooke’s future plans, pop-ups and charities can be found on his Instagram.
All photography by Alden Bonecutter.