Chef Tajahi Cooke connects. He connects diners to the flavors of his native Jamaica with an ongoing series of pop-up dinners and collaborative meals. He connects home cooks to generations past with Ms. Betty’s Cooking, a curry powder business that pays tribute to his grandmother. Within the Colorado dining community, he connects a wide swathe of producers, chefs and organizations. And two weeks ago, he connected 13,036 individuals in the Denver Metro area with a freshly-prepared Thanksgiving meal. This was the fifth year for Ms. Betty’s Madsgiving Harvest, a project he and his wife Danielle had slowly been building toward for multiple seasons ahead of its 2018 debut.
“Me and Danielle had just been feeding our friends, individuals on our floors,” says Cooke. But in 2018, he teamed with Mean Street Worship Center to expand the project to pass out meals to the visibly hungry across downtown Denver. That year saw the production and distribution of 515 sack lunch-style hot meals, complete with the traditional holiday fixings.
Cooke says he was moved by the increasingly dire conditions he saw developing across town.
“The more we kept driving around the city, it was rough,” he says. “There were more and more tents popping up. So I asked Danielle if this Madsgiving idea was crazy, and she said no.”
The first year was largely grassroots, with Tajahi and Danielle doing the brunt of the cooking and delivering themselves. “We could be driving to a location to drop off some meals, and if we saw someone in need, we’d pass them one out,” he says.
After his mom, Sandra Shelley Williams, passed away unexpectedly earlier in 2023, “I didn’t think Thanksgiving was going to happen,” Cooke says.
But then he and Danielle found themselves driving around downtown again, realizing that economic conditions had only grown worse in the few short years since they started the project.
“It was hard not to pay attention to what was going on, even though I was hurting,” says Cooke. “As much as I wanted to hide, I couldn’t hide.”
This year’s event took over 300 volunteers, with nearly half of them returning after contributing to last year’s event. “If it wasn’t for the community, none of this shit would have gotten done,” says Cooke.
This year’s event saw donations and contributions from Lakeland Marketing, The Knife Guys, The Salvation Army, Mean Street Worship Center, Zeppelin Station, Stillman Meat Co., Gringos Tacos, Fireside at Five, U-Haul, Penske, The Farm and Market, Volunteers of America, Denver East Food Hub, Stem Ciders, the Colorado Restaurant Association, Cherry Creek School District, Harvest Moon Baking Company, the Hispanic Restaurant Association, Italco Food and Products Inc., Urban Peak, Healthy Harvest, Shamrock Foods, The Kitchen Network, Miller Farms and Sora Studios.
On Thanksgiving day, Cooke and his team assembled meals at both Zeppelin Station and the kitchen space of the former Johnson and Wales downtown. Each box lunch featured individual portions of spiced turkey or chicken, mac and cheese, green beans, cranberry sauce and a fresh mixed green salad. Three to four thousand of the meals were delivered to Overland High School, where members of the community would arrive to pick up their allotment. Most were hand delivered, including roughly 3,000 being passed directly to people on the streets of downtown Denver.
“It’s not just me and Danielle behind the computer anymore,” laughs Cooke.
Cooke spent the formative years of his childhood in Kingston, Jamaica, where he says being on the receiving end of some charity from the Salvation Army helped shape his current penchant for community organization and activism. After moving stateside, Cooke spent a year in the Big Apple before moving to Antioch, California, where he would finish out his high school years.
Since the age of 15, he had been following the footsteps of his father, Albert “Papa Pretty” Cooke, who had spent a good chunk of his career as tour manager for reggae acts like Michael Franti and Spearhead, and both Ziggy and Damian Marley. Previously an assistant, by the time Cooke was 18, he was working as the road manager for Morgan Heritage. It was a Morgan Heritage tour that first brought him to Colorado.
Cooke’s culinary knack dates back to his youth, where he says a lot of his education came from learning to feed himself at home. “Shit man, I had to eat,” he says, grinning. He pursued his career in professional kitchens after moving to Denver, beginning at Mesa Verde Bar & Grill at the Denver International Airport and later working at The Kitchen and The Kitchen Next Door, Bacon Social House and Block and Larder.
Madsgiving’s meteoric evolution has been all tenacity and the unbreakable will of a growing network of folks who really care and know how to show their kindness through food. It’s been a lot of cold-calling on Cooke’s part. Fortunately, lots of folks answered.
“If I call you and you don’t answer on the second day, I’m showing up at your door on the third,” he says. “Madsgiving is no longer about just us. It’s about everybody.”