Immigrants and refugees finding hope through food incubator

Posted at 9:23 PM, Sep 10, 2019

For three years, Comal in Denver has been a place for aspiring entrepreneurs to chase their culinary dreams.

“I like to cook. I enjoy it,” Comal employee Martha Ordonez said in Spanish.

When the restaurant first opened, workers were a group of women from the neighborhood. Most of them were immigrants who had been living in the United States for a while.

Now the food incubator also serves refugees from Syria and Iraq who are fairly new arrivals to the U.S.

The idea is to provide a platform and safe place for people in the community to learn skills that can better their lives and the lives of their families.

“Business skills, language skills, marketing, basically anything you would need to run your own business,” Comal founder Slavica Park said.

However, it’s become more than just a place for training.

“I love my culture, and I know that culture can provide more than just a dish,” Comal employee Silvia Hernandez said.

It’s become a place of cross-cultural exchange. A place where the workers and the customers can experience something different in their own backyard.

“We really encourage them to dig deep, to go back to even their grandma’s recipes, because we really want it to be authentic and specific to their culture,” Park said.

“Sometimes I have to call my mom to ask her ‘oh you know this dish? What did you put in that dish?” Hernandez said.

Silvia Hernandez is from Mexico City. She’s been cooking at Comal since its inception.

“Today I cook chicken with creamy poblano sauce, and I remember my mom cook the poblano sauce, but I add a little bit of spinach so I put a little bit of my own today,” Hernandez said.

After a year of learning about the industry, Hernandez was able to open her own catering business.

It’s an accomplishment she doesn’t think would have been possible if it wasn’t for her time at Comal, and her ability to get paid while she learned.

“That’s good because that’s how we support our families. That’s how I support my family.”

Hernandez said a lot of people who work at Comal are looking for hope. And what helps even more is when immigrants like her are welcomed into society.

“While Denver has been extremely welcoming to the refugee and immigrant population, here and there obviously you’ll run across misconceptions. And I think one of those typically is that we’re here to get something. I think it’s quite contrary. I think we’re here to really work hard, and also, we do bring many talents and gifts,” Park said.

The talents of Hernandez have brought her into a world of culinary success. She says integrating into U.S. culture hasn’t always been easy, but she believes it’s best to keep a positive attitude.

“Changes or bad things sometimes make you learn, and have a new beginning,” Hernandez said.

It doesn’t matter where you come from. Hernandez says anyone can have a new beginning.

“We are welcoming any culture… any kind of cuisine. Can be American, African, Bolivian, Venezuelan, whatever.”