The last thing on Sandy Hullum’s mind when she attended Emerson College in Boston was cooking, much less opening a restaurant.
“I was young and studying marketing and planning on working for corporations,” she said.
“But I always loved food and cooking and I’d call my grandmother every year and ask her how to make sweet potato pie. She would say ‘Why don’t you write it down?’ I told her I liked having her talk me through it.”
That culinary passion finds Hullum on a sunny weekday afternoon seated at a table at Flava, her modest year-old restaurant tucked in a strip mall with a good taco joint and a New Mexican bakery. “People Get Ready” is wafting from the speakers.
Her mother thinks it’s hilarious that Hullum’s cooking and serving such soulful favorites as pork chops, oxtails, neck bones and short ribs.
“I stopped eating meat for the most part decades ago, just a little chicken and turkey now,” she said.
Hullum talks about her love for whole grains and eating in “colors” — lots of different vegtables and fruits. “I plan on living to 114,” she said.
Needless to say, her avoidance of flesh is a challenge since she does a lot of the cooking. “I’ll taste the sauces and a little piece of a pork chop to make sure it’s right but I don’t swallow it,” she said.
Hullum said that her original focus was on opening a good neighborhood restaurant with scratch-made home cooking, not a soul food kitchen. “My son in D.C. told me about these fast-food soul places that give you a whole meal. I started serving an $8 soul plate and it took over.”
Flava’s soul food plates are a substantial meal bargain. Start with a pork chop, turkey leg, neck bones, fried catfish, beef short ribs or fried chicken. Add sides such as collard greens, red beans over rice, mac-’n’-cheese and sweet potatoes. Every plate comes with cornbread and tea or lemonade.
It sounds like soul food but from the beginning Hollum took a decidedly healthier route to creating fare that is traditionally meaty, fatty, high-caloric, and heavily processed.
She only uses fresh vegetables and she doesn’t cook them the traditional way with pork fat or bacon and heavily salted.
“I use turkey in my collard greens — you don’t need all that fat and salt on your vegetables,” she said.
She boils sweet potatoes instead of opening a can. She’ll grill your catfish instead of frying it. She’s had a meatless Boca Burger and a turkey dog on the menu from the beginning and does vegetarian and gluten-free menus on request.
Hullum tries to make everything from scratch including Southern sweet tea, throttling back the sugar, and offers unsweetened tea with a hint of mint. Flava’s burger — flat griddled and then grill charred — is handformed from fresh 80/20 ground beef.
“I have to admit that sometimes when I’m cooking a burger and it’s juicy and has all that cheese and I think ‘oh my goodness that looks good.’ But I don’t eat it — I have a turkey burger instead,” she said.
And unlike at most soul food or other comfort food eateries, that slice of coconut custard pie can be accompanied by an expertly made cafe au lait or espresso.
Hullum grew up in Philadelphia. “My family migrated from Richmond and Charleston. The cooking came with them but there were never many actual recipes,” she said.
After she graduated from college she lived in the Boston area for many years. Eventually a marketing job opportunity brought her to Denver and the desire for a career and life change turned her toward another passion: good coffee. She opened one of the metro area’s first independent drive-through espresso shops, Mocha Motive on Monaco and operated coffee shops in numerous office buildings.
Hullum had been doing casual catering all along for friends.
“I hadn’t planned on it but I kept getting orders from women who don’t know how to cook,” she said. “They’d come and pick it up and serve it in their dishes as their own.”
Hullum finally decided to take the plunge a year ago and open a restaurant where she could also do catering.
It took a while for the word about Flava to spread, Hullum said.
“The clientele is really all kinds of folks — white, black and Hispanic. My business clients come in. Everybody eats the same foods, just different preparations. We get a lot of soldiers from Buckley and younger couples for Sunday brunch.”
Flava’s always-jammed Sunday brunch gives Hullum a chance to expand her repertoire beyond pulled pork sandwiches and soul food plates. She offers shrimp and grits with eggs, breakfast burritos with green chile, salmon cakes and real fried chicken with red velvet waffles. The latter item is the most challenging in a small kitchen, she said.
“You can’t cook fried chicken ahead of time and reheat it. You have to make it to order and it takes time.”
Down the line Hullum is looking at adding a liquor license and adding items like vegetable fritters and a health-conscious blackeyed pea salsa and chips.
Hullum recently called her mother to figure out how to cook pigs’ feet. “She starts laughing at me. ‘I can’t believe you’re trying to cook that and you don’t even eat meat.’”
She sighs and smiles as she relates that some of her regular customers clear their own tables.
“I tell them that they don’t have to do that. They say they forget and just feel like they are at home.”
On the menu at Flava: Perfect catfish and exceptional pie
By JOHN LEHNDORFF
Colorado Table Editor
I haven’t been able to try the fried chicken and waffles yet, but here are a few Flava menu highlights from my visits:
• Smothered pork chop: A great lightly fried chop immersed in a rich scratch-made pork gravy
• Catfish: Large fresh fillets lightly fried in a perfect crispy cornmeal coating as an entree or sandwich
• Mac and cheese: Literally, because this is really just soft elbows with LOTS of shredded cheddar
• Red beans and rice: Carolina-inspired slow-cooked tender beans over steamed converted rice
• Sweet potatoes: Just spuds lightly sweetened with a touch of nutmeg
• Cornbread: Moist, buttery, and not-sweet white cornbread
• Iced tea: Scratch-made daily (along with the lemonade), the sweet tea is not over-syrupy and the excellent strong unsweetened iced tea has a hint of mint
• Coconut custard pie: Butter crust jam-packed with custard and sweet coconut with a macaroon-like top
15343 E. 6th Ave, Aurora