Utah chef turns love for cooking cuisines into helping community

Jul 18, 2022, 6:59 PM | Updated: Jul 19, 2022, 11:31 am

SALT LAKE CITY — Jesus “Jessie” Valdez has all the ingredients to cook up some chili — a soup that will feed 450 people.

For Valdez, his love of cooking started as a kid.

“I was maybe 5 years old, 6 years old, and my mom showed me how to make tortillas by hand,” Valdez said.

Valdez started working at a California restaurant — first sweeping the parking lot, washing dishes, and eventually, bussing tables.

One day, Valdez’s boss offered him an opportunity to cook. Though hesitant, Valdez finally found himself in the kitchen, and the rest is history.

“I learned really fast,” Valdez said.

Not only did Valdez learn to cook fast, but he learned he loved to make food for other people.

After moving to Utah, Valdez spent years working his way up in various restaurants, until he found himself as a chef for a Marriott hotel.

Fourteen years later, Valdez learned about the Utah Community Action program.

Rodney Jenson, nutrition manager for the Utah Community Action kitchen, said they offer free meals for kids from breakfast to dinner.

“Sometimes if we’re trying to determine if we’re paying rent, the dollar value that we’re able to give to our food is very low,” Jenson said. “When the kids are out of school, sometimes they’re not getting that healthy, nutritious meal that they would normally get during that school time.”

Meals are offered for parents at cost, no questions asked.

“You don’t have to have an ID, and we’re not looking how much income you’re making,” Jenson said. “If you’re just struggling or want to have a nutritious, healthy meal, it is free to anyone that comes through.”

Jenson said they served 35,000 meals in 2021, and as of this year, they’re serving 1,800 every single day.

“We’re out here making sure that no matter what, we’re taking care of the community,” Jenson said.

That service inspired Valdez to join the Utah Community Action kitchen, cooking on the weekends.

For a while, Valdez cooked for the Marriott Hotel during the week and filled in on the weekends, but then Valdez learned where his true passion for cooking was.

“I came here because I enjoy working with the kids,” Valdez said

The shift switch was an easy choice for Valdez. He chose to take a pay cut and cook cuisines for his community during the weekday and hotel patrons on the weekend.

“I don’t have any plans to retire, let’s put it that way,” Valdez said. “I really love it.”

There are five different locations where you can try Valdez’s cooking. The summer dinner program goes until Aug. 14.

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Utah chef turns love for cooking cuisines into helping community