Chef John Trejo celebrated his birthday this year, and every one for the past six years, by filling plates for people in search of a good meal, companionship and Christmas cheer.
Volunteers and members of Bridge House serenaded Trejo, executive chef at Community Table Kitchen, before the Boulder Chophouse opened its doors to serve a free Christmas meal. He and his staff prepared enough food to serve 350 people — ham, stuffing, salads and sides — and only once everyone was taken care of would he relax.
“This time of year is tough in general and no one should go through Christmas without a good, nutritious meal,” Trejo said.
People were lined up to the corner starting around 11 a.m. Once inside, a tag was given to backpacks and bags so people could be seated and served throughout the restaurant. Serving in the kitchen were people who have gone through the Ready to Work program through Community Table Kitchen, a social enterprise that provides individuals jobs and job training in kitchens and landscaping for people wanting to turn their lives around.
Christina Hardin, who moved to Denver from California, plated fresh salads alongside others who have already completed the program. While living on the streets, she met someone who told her about Bridge House.
“He was really amazing,” Hardin said. “It was like God sent him.”
In the program, she’s learning to bake, how to make sauces and property cut ingredients. Her bosses couldn’t be kinder, she said, and the program has helped her get sober, learn to cope with difficult situations and essentially start her life over.
Trejo, a chef of 35 years who has worked in 15 cities and in establishments from casinos and hotels to free-standing restaurants, came to Bridge House because he wanted to teach and make a meaningful impact on his community. Community Kitchen Table, a catering company under the umbrella of Bridge House, funnels all the money raised through the business back to the Ready to Work training program.
Scott Medina, Bridge House director of community relations, said most people serving in the kitchen were formerly homeless and were given a job and housing for a year. When they graduate the program, the organization helps set them up with a full-time job, although not necessarily work in kitchens or landscaping, and housing.
“Every year it’s a heart-warming event that feels important to offer in this community,” Medina said.
About 60 volunteers acted as hosts and servers to make the meal feel more “special” than the regular serving style.
Renee Israel took a break from her volunteer duties to watch her three children present bread baskets, refill drinks and hand out pairs of socks filled with toiletries and snacks. She and her husband joined the Bridge House board of directors this year after years of volunteering.
They’ve made a habit of bringing along their children, and at times encouraging them to donate one of their holiday gifts to someone less fortunate, to instill a sense of gratitude for what they have and to remember those less fortunate.
“The the kids come here and go home saying ‘let’s give everything away,’” Israel said.
In Niwot, a free meal was served to anyone who made a reservation.
Niwot Tavern, owned by Bob Russell and Tony Santelli, served about 150 free meals. As people left after the first meal, Russell was thanked with kisses, hugs and handshakes by patrons praising the food and promising to return.
Most of the first two crowds were made up of seniors driven there by Circle of Care, an organization that prevents senior isolation by providing transportation and connecting people with art, education and the community.
Circle founder Joan Raderman enlisted volunteers to provide transportation and at least one who filled the room with guitar music and led Christmas carols.
“They bring in people and we feed them,” said Russell, who donned a chef’s jacket for the occasion.
Russell and Santelli host other events during the year — from donating gallons of soup for Our Center to holding a free meal for veterans on Veterans Day — as a way to reach out to the community. Raderman’s wife and four of his six grandchildren were also on hand to help serve and greet diners.
Raderman said seniors tell her the annual outing is far preferable to hanging out around dining halls at their senior community centers.
“They look forward to it year round knowing they won’t be alone,” Raderman said.