Toe Ma rarely stopped smiling throughout our interview. That smile is something he is known for among the staff at the Next Door restaurant in Stapleton’s Eastbridge Town Center, where he works in the kitchen. Originally from Burma, “Toe Ma” is his first and last name, which everyone uses as if it was one word. Or they call him by his nickname, Tomatillo. He can also be called grateful—for his freedom from a decade in a refugee camp and a new life in Denver.
Executive Chef Chris Collins hired Toe Ma out of the Culinary QuickStart program, a one-month, fast-track, free cooking school that prepares students for careers in the restaurant industry. “The school contacted me and said they had a guy with a great personality, who was kind of green, and had a language barrier.” says Collins. “I said ‘absolutely,’ because as long as you have a great attitude, I can teach you how to cook.”
Toe Ma’s cooking experience began in a restaurant at the refugee camp in Burma. He, like so many others, was forced out by the Burmese military who took over farms and moved into homes. He was able to leave through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which helps protect and assist refugees around the world. Burmese refugees were taken to Australia, Canada, Sweden, Japan and the United States. Toe Ma landed in Denver and lives just south of Stapleton, near a church where he enjoys playing guitar, singing and “making time happy with God,” he says.
“Happy” is a word Toe Ma uses often when describing his life in Denver and at the restaurant. “It was difficult to live. Now I am here and I am lucky and happy,” says Toe Ma. “This is now really freedom.”
The language barrier was tough at first, but Collins says, “(Communicating about) food is easy, it’s international, and everyone knows it—so it’s easy to break through those barriers.”
Toe Ma describes learning English as uncomfortable at times because he wants to make sure he is using the right words. “I learn, but I guess a little too,” he says. “I want to speak respectfully but sometimes I just keep quiet. I am happy to speak with other people and learn a lot.”
Since he started working at the restaurant, Toe Ma’s English has improved dramatically, thanks to English classes three times a week. He’s also picking up a bit of Spanish from a co-worker.
His culinary skills have improved dramatically too. Collins has introduced Toe Ma to the idea of bulk-prepping items, like cutting onions for all of the dishes in a day, or how to make four salads at once instead of one at a time.
An automated kitchen has helped Toe Ma get up to speed quickly, including a “smart oven” that has been programmed with the temperature, timing and humidity levels required for various menu items and a salmon slicer.
Toe Ma’s first job at Next Door was as a dishwasher but he quickly moved up to being a prep cook—the person who gets the right amount of ingredients ready for all the dishes each day. He also helps out as a line cook preparing meals for guests.
When asked about the best advice Collins has shared with him, Toe Ma says it is “what we need to do in the kitchen so we can make more growth.” Collins clarifies that it’s teaching kitchen methods that increase productivity. “Chef is very good for us—if there’s something I think I can’t do, he shows me and then I can,” says Toe Ma, and adds, “he also taught me how to change a flat tire.”
Toe Ma’s long term goal is to be a chef and maybe have his own restaurant someday,. “We’re opening more restaurants so I’d love to see him running his own,” says Collins.
Toe Ma has introduced the staff to his native Burmese food, contributing meals to company potlucks. He also utilizes the restaurant’s ingredients in new and different ways to make Burmese-influenced lunches for himself. Toe Ma learns from his co-workers too, even fundamentals. “We all had breakfast together today and Toe Ma told me it was the first time he had ever used a knife as an eating utensil because he always just used a fork and spoon,” Collins says.
Collins calls Toe Ma, “a ray of sunshine to the team.” When asked what he thinks about being in Denver and working at the restaurant, Toe Ma says simply, “I am very happy.”