Utah chef turns love of cooking into a helping community

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 began when he was a child.

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

Valdez began working in a California restaurant – first sweeping the parking lot, washing dishes and finally tables.

One day, Valdez’s boss offered him to cook. Although Valdez hesitated, he eventually found himself in the kitchen and the rest is history.

“I learned very quickly,” said Valdez.

In addition to learning to cook quickly, Valdez learned that he loved preparing food for other people.

After moving to Utah, Valdez spent years working his way up at various restaurants until he found himself as a chef at the 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 when we’re trying to determine if we’re paying rent, the dollar value we can give our food is very small,” Jenson said. “Sometimes when kids don’t go to school, they don’t get the healthy, nutritious meal they would normally get during that school time.”

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

“You don’t have to have ID, and we don’t look at how much income you’re making,” Jenson said. “If you’re just struggling or want a nutritious, healthy meal, it’s free for anyone who comes by.”

Jenson said they served 35,000 meals in 2021, and they’ve been serving 1,800 every day since this year.

“We’re out here to make sure we take care of the community no matter what,” Jenson said.

This ministry inspired Valdez to join the Utah Community Action kitchen and cook on the weekends.

For a time, Valdez cooked for the Marriott Hotel during the week and filled in on the weekends, but it was then that Valdez discovered where his true passion for cooking lay.

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

The shifter wasn’t an easy choice for Valdez. He decided to take a pay cut and cooked for his community on weekdays and for hotel guests on the weekends.

“I have no plans to retire, let’s put it that way,” Valdez said. “I really love it.”

There are five different places where you can taste Valdez cuisine. The summer dinner program runs through August 14th.

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