Editor’s column: Inspired by the story behind a restaurant | PostIndependent.com

Editor’s column: Inspired by the story behind a restaurant

Randy Essex

Randy Essex

Sometimes you develop an affection for a business and cheer for its success.

That's the case with me and Cocina del Valle, a 4-month-old restaurant in Basalt that operates on a different business model than most.

It's a cooperative started with the help of businessman and philanthropist George Stranahan and the Manaus Fund that he founded.

The restaurant grew from the Manaus Fund's Valley Settlement Project and its parent mentor program, which has placed dozens of volunteers in classrooms across the Roaring Fork School District in recent years.

The parent mentors, almost all of them Latino immigrants, put in 10 hours a week — eight in the classroom plus additional time learning about issues including domestic violence, child abuse, how to teach and how to find a job.

They have proven invaluable in Roaring Fork School District classrooms, just as the program has proven invaluable in changing their lives, helping them learn English, jump back into education themselves, set goals and become involved in their communities.

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From all that grew a dream that was first a catering operation and now is Cocina del Valle.

I learned about the restaurant as I worked on a story about Eloisa Duarte, the director of the parent mentor program. She was central to the brainstorming with Stranahan and other women in the parent mentor program. Her husband, Mario Alverde, manages the restaurant, and her son, also named Mario, works there.

Eloisa is driven by a passion to make others' lives and communities better. She draws immigrant women out of their homes, out of isolation and into their children's schools. As was the case with her, many of the women quickly go from knowing almost no English to taking courses at Colorado Mountain College and helping others.

These are the cooperative members and workers at Cocina, along with others who have been hired, including Alejandro Reyes, the former chef at Taqueria El Nopal before that Basalt institution was razed for new development.

I'm inspired by entrepreneurs and dreamers. A paid employee since I was 15, I've thought about buying or starting a business, but other than a no-risk marathon training business I co-founded in the early days of the Internet, I've never had the guts.

So I greatly admire the dozen or so owner-employees of Cocina who schemed with Stranahan about how they might set their own destinies rather than relying on others for jobs. It's such an essentially American story and such a bold step for the people involved that I can't help but pull for them.

In addition, the restaurant serves darn good food. (Disclaimer: I am not a restaurant reviewer; that's just my layman eater's opinion.) I've loved the chili rellenos, and a friend raved about the mole sauce. My wife and I have dined there three times since the opening.

My liking the place doesn't mean that it has been without bumps. Many of those working there are new to the restaurant business and — I find this endearing and courageous — some of the servers are still feeling their way in America.

The cooperative has hired a consultant to help smooth the operation, and this weekend is holding a community appreciation event that includes samplings of new menu items — it's adding "Latin flare" to the traditional Mexican cuisine — 15 percent off for locals and a festive atmosphere Friday through Sunday.

Cocina del Valle is open 10 a.m. till 9 p.m. this weekend. The phone is 970-773-1443 and the address is 305 Gold Rivers Court in Basalt — more familiarly Two Rivers Road.

That's the former location of Midland Bakery and Eurasia LLC, among other restaurants — its something of a Bermuda Triangle for eateries. It's off the main strip of Midland in downtown Basalt, though not far, and it doesn't get a lot of casual foot traffic.

Don't let that keep you away. Dining there comes with a free appetizer of inspiration garnished with a great story line.

Randy Essex is editor of the Post Independent.