When trying to sum up our political climate in a word, we landed on the word “tumultuous”—but that might be an understatement. Now, more than ever, tensions are at an all-time high around the nation; Denver is no exception. In light of a recent executive order that bars travelers from seven countries–Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen—our local communities have erupted with weekly protests, flooding Civic Center Park and even organizing stand-ins at DIA.
Our restaurant community has responded to the political climate in its own way. All across Denver and Boulder, major restaurant groups have donated portions of their proceeds to major immigrant advocacy organizations like the ACLU, while local brewers craft rebellious brews (read: “A Pussy Riot,” a brew which benefits Planned Parenthood and One Colorado). Many restaurants around town have taken a more subtle approach, posting inclusive signs in their windows.
Owner/Chef of Café Aion, Dakota Soifer and Chef Kyle Mendell of Arcana have taken this a step further by bridging the gap between community and food. On February 19, the duo will host “Flavors Without Borders–A Resistance Dinner,” a community dinner centered around the cuisines of the recently banned countries. The dinner will feature small bites, drinks, and four courses representative of the seven countries. The event doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable conversation, as the invitation comes with a powerful message of its own:
“Flavors and aromas are our lifeblood in the restaurant industry and in the rich cultural heritage that is America, our biggest asset. President Trump’s recent Immigration Ban flies in the face of everything we believe in. In our restaurants, we don’t judge people by the color of their skin or the religion of their motherland. Their merit emanates from the depth of flavor they can coax from a sauce, their determination, and hard work. Quite often the very best cooks, chefs, and restaurateurs are folks who come from distant lands and bring a special tradition of hospitality and cuisine to share with their new world. We do not believe in fear and isolation. We relish celebrating our diversity and invite you to join us at our table for a night of solidarity. We will be featuring dishes from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. Proceeds from the evening will be donated to the ACLU in support of the relentless work they do protecting all humans’ rights.”
We took the time to chat with Chef Soifer on diversity, inclusion, and the power of food.
DiningOut: What inspired you to start this event?
Chef Dakota Soifer: Kyle [Mendenhall] and I had been talking about doing a collaboration dinner—it had been awhile since we had cooked together. In light of the ban, I thought centering a dinner around diversity and inclusion would be a great idea to bring people together.
What was your personal response to the travel ban?
Trump’s ban flew in the face of quite a few different things that I believed in. In the kitchen, it doesn’t matter what your skin color or religion is. All that matters is whether you are producing good food. What can you create, what can you bring to people? So much of our cooking at Café Aion is really about the flavors that people aren’t familiar with and how much fun it is to introduce it to folks. Without ethnic flair, it’s just a sad state of affairs.
Do you think it is important for other restaurants to take a stance on politics?
I never intended to be political, but this issue hit me and so many others. It felt justified to break from usual hospitality when handling these things. Many restaurants and hospitality businesses raise money for wonderful organizations but rarely do they have a real political side. I just want to celebrate different cultures and how much you can gain from traveling and experiencing new flavors.
How did you curate your recipes for this dinner? Did you go with popular dishes from each country?
At Café Aion, we have a lot of carry-over from Middle Eastern countries by offering couscous, braised lamb, or goat. The challenge was questioning how would these dishes differ in Yemen versus Syria, for example. What do they like to fill their hand pies with in Iraq versus Iran? We definitely did our research and, as a result, we both enjoyed cooking with these flavors from different regions of the world.
What do you hope that people will take away from the experience?
That people realize how much they can gain from experiencing great flavors of the world. That instead of trolling websites, we should make the effort to come together. It’s actually a proven fact—breaking bread with people increases trust and cooperation among one another. Our dinner will be a great opportunity for people to experience and share that with others.
Any chance you would continue this as a regular event?
We definitely hope so! I would love to host it at Arcana next time—I’d love to cook over the wood-fired grill!
Flavors Without Borders—A Resistance Dinner will be held at Café Aion on Sunday, February 19 starting at 6pm. Tickets are $120 per person which will include drinks, small bites, and a four-course dinner. Tickets can be purchased here.
By Morgan Carter, Editor