A Good Cook
Nestled nine stories above the eastern edge of downtown Boise on the roof of the C.W. Moore Plaza building, Christopher Zahn, also known as Chef Zee, takes the tops off locally grown carrots to purée into a pesto he’ll serve as part of a meal for the Boise Farmers Market board of directors.
Stepping into the dining area of his recently remodeled space and moving toward the windows and outdoor patio, we see high-rises to the east jab the sky surrounding the Grove. To the north, the capitol building imposes itself on a backdrop of foothills as antennas protrude from the top of Bogus Basin. Despite the million-dollar view, the restaurant, like Zahn, is modest and unassuming.
Born and raised in Butte, Montana, Zahn arrived in Boise in 2004 to work at the Arid Club, a members-only dining and social organization. A year later, he concurrently pursued a degree in the culinary arts at Boise State University. Zahn said the BSU program granted credits for volunteering and once he did that a few times, he “got the [volunteer] bug.”
The breadth of Zahn’s philanthropic activities includes donating his culinary and floral-arranging services to a number of charities, decorating Christmas trees, teaching food insecure families how to cook and shop on a budget, providing free meeting and event space to organizations, and founding and presiding over his own nonprofit.
His Corks 4 A Cure organization gathers used wine corks and recycles them into birdhouses and cork boards. They also sell corks to craft hobbyists and artisans on Etsy and eBay. Since 2010, the nonprofit has recycled more than 200,000 wine stoppers and raised more than $25,000 to support other charitable organizations, such as the Boise office of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. If you’ve been to Whole Foods Market—or about two dozen other locations in the Treasure Valley—you’ve seen their donation station near the indoor recycling bins and cash registers.
Zahn regularly supports other area organizations such as Giraffe Laugh, Idaho Foodbank, Saint Alphonsus Foundation’s Festival of Trees, and the Women’s and Children’s Alliance (WCA). Praise for Zahn from the philanthropic community is universal, emphasizing his willingness to go above and beyond.
“He’s a rock star in our world,” says Lisa Uhlmann, “Corporate Pillar” manager for the WCA. “There’s nothing you can’t ask Chris for. He’s been there for us.”
As a Corporate Pillar, Zahn has consistently supported the WCA’s work to help those who experience domestic violence and abuse. Uhlmann recalls his cooking a turkey dinner for all the residents of Serena’s House, the WCA’s emergency shelter, when she mentioned to him that they likely wouldn’t have a Thanksgiving meal that year.
The Idaho Foodbank’s Christine Dwello adds, “He’s a very kindhearted person and he’s very giving and we’re really lucky to have him in our community.” Zahn will be a lead chef during this fall’s “A Chefs’ Affaire,” the Foodbank’s largest annual fundraiser, as well as provide soup for the organization’s “Empty Bowls” event the day after Thanksgiving.
Despite his accomplishments, the softspoken Zahn deflects questions about what drives his philanthropy. For instance, he doesn’t disclose, at first, that he was once misdiagnosed with MS and that his mother lives with the illness.
“He’s kind of a hard one to read,” says Jill Aldape, executive director of the St. Al’s Foundation.
“He’s not the guy at a social situation who’s going to hold court and entertain everyone. My impression is that he likes to be in those social gatherings, but he just likes to watch people having a good time and he probably gets a profound level of joy out of having contributed to the event.”
Not only will Zahn donate and decorate a Christmas tree for this year’s Festival of Trees, as he has for nearly a decade, he’ll also prepare food for the Festival’s kick-off gala.
“Actions speak louder than words, don’t they?” Aldape adds, “This is who he is and what he has done. More so than telling us, he has shown us.”
Zahn does say he wants “people to have a personal connection with food and a connection with each other.” To that end, he hopes to help build a community centered on eating healthy, locally grown food and to provide a place where people can come together and connect.
Growers and ranchers who sell their offerings at the Boise Farmers Market attest to Zahn’s actions to support local food. Josie Erskine of Peaceful Belly Farms notes that he always shows up near closing time and buys boxes of produce from them and other vendors. As if to affirm
Erskine’s statement, a box of shelling peas from Peaceful Belly sits on a rack in Zahn’s kitchen—also part of the meal later that day for the BFM’s board of directors.
As for building a gathering place for the community, Zahn dreams that his rooftop café will soon become a “daytime mecca.” He talks excitedly
of offering exercise programs like yoga in the morning, setting up a salad bar full of local produce for lunch, preparing sushi at a specially designed counter, teaching cooking classes in the fall and donating the space to nonprofits to raise money. If this dream succeeds, Zahn will likely watch quietly from behind the scenes and enjoy what he’s been able to bring together.