Welcome to our Career Connections series, where we speak with Alumni who inspire us to build deep connections with our community, passion, and careers.
Chef Tyler Kanwai, also known as Chef TK, is the owner TK’s Surf and Turf Kitchen, Colorado’s first black-owned seafood restaurant. He’s also a College Summit Alumni. Tyler’s journey from college to the kitchen inspires us to think boldly about our careers and the connections we have to them.
Tyler completed his workshop in 2007 at Metro State University, Denver. Since then, his restaurant has been voted Colorado’s most popular seafood restaurant for three years. We caught up with him to discuss his life after high school, the journey to success for TK’s Surf and Turf, and how his College Summit (now, PeerForward) experience influenced his future.
How did you choose your path after high school and what pathway did you take? Did you go to culinary school? Did you go to college?
Fresh out of high school, I went straight into college. I was actually in college for two to three years. I never went to culinary school. My father was a chef and growing up I’d watched my parents cook. So, just imagine a young kid sitting in the kitchen doing homework watching his father put all these different meals together. My favorite meal, of course, is seafood. Around the time of my College Summit workshop, his health started to decline. He had his own catering business, and he was doing gigs and things of that nature. A lot of those things that he set to do, he no longer could. He passed away when I was 21.
At that point, I stepped away from college and started working full-time. I got into the insurance industry, and I worked there for about five years. During that time, I tried my hand at cooking for friends and family on the weekends. Word spread like wildfire that I had something really special going on. It was special enough that people would contact me, despite me not having an actual storefront or food truck, asking about my food. Eventually, I got the interest of NBA players, NFL players, and other entertainers that were passing through the city.
“It reached a point where it only made sense for me to leave my job and dedicate myself to cooking full-time.”
The orders started coming in too fast, so that’s when my family stepped in and helped me out. We became like a machine, a machine that’s still thriving and pumping to this day. That’s how we ended up getting the storefront.
What did it mean to you to see and feel that support from, not from not only your family but also your community?
I’ll say this, I’m a dreamer. I’m a dreamer, but it’s one thing to have a dream, it’s another thing when you back it up with action, and that is what I set out to do. It felt amazing. I found something that worked. I found something profitable that would change my family’s lives, and it definitely has. Even before I had my current customer base, my family has always been very supportive. From the day I said I wanted to do it, they supported me.
As far as my customer base goes, for some, they believed in me from the jump. Others, I had to make them into believers. However, even for those that I had to prove myself to, the support is amazing. At the time, I had no idea that I would’ve been Colorado’s first Black-owned seafood restaurant.
The reason I didn’t recognize that on my way up was because I was too busy being consistent. I was a good year in the business before it hit me: I’m Colorado’s first Black-owned seafood restaurant. From then on, I started doing reviews with plenty of foodies. There is one in specific, they go by DenverFoodScene. They had been following me for a while, and they were determined to come to my spot and try out my food. At that point, they did a review, and they had a great following. Through this collaboration, they created a TikTok that highlighted my signature plate. We incorporated into the actual TikTok that I have Colorado’s first Black-owned seafood restaurant. It got over a million views in less than 24 hours. From there, things really took off. To this day, we’re very active on TikTok and other social media platforms. People from across the country come by to check us out, which is a blessing.
Take us back to 17-year-old Tyler. What was he like? What was your College Summit workshop like for you at that point in your life?
So, let’s see, 17-year-old Tyler. I was a teenager on my way to becoming a young man. I was trying to figure out my next moves to become that young adult that my parents, my teachers, and my community wanted me to be as I was facing graduation. I didn’t even know where I wanted to go to school. We were told throughout high school, from freshman to junior year, you’ve got to prepare for college, apply for this, and apply for that. Things didn’t really hit me until that second semester of my junior year.
“Working with Ms. Steele to write my personal statement was the most impactful moment at my College Summit workshop…”
One thing I would say about College Summit/PeerForward is that it was a blessing to have the opportunity to go to that workshop. I remember working with Ms. Steele to write my personal statement was the most impactful moment at my College Summit workshop because she helped pull the best out of me. If I had been left to write that on my own, I don’t know what would’ve written about. I got really personal in my essay so when a college admissions committee would review my personal statement, they knew that I was a young man that was trying to take my life to the next level and that I was invested in my future. I remember it vividly, I talked about my father, the man who taught me how to cook.
It seems like College Summit gave you an opportunity to write down and connect with your purpose. Did you feel that, while writing your personal essay, gave you a chance to reflect on what was important to you?
Yeah, it definitely did. It gave me the opportunity to take a step back and visualize how I wanted my future to go. It gave me the opportunity to talk about myself and not this painted façade that just looks good to others. My story is unique because only I went through it. The Writing Coaches, like Ms. Steele, really connect with you on a personal level. If I tried to write like that on my own or in school, it wouldn’t have turned out that way.
How have you continued to try to be a Peer Leader? How have you tried to continue uplifting those around you as you pursue your own goals?
I would say more so now, as a black restaurant owner, I’m here to inspire. I’m here to motivate the next generation of people who look like me to pursue their dreams. Like I said earlier, everybody has a dream, but it’s the action that goes behind it that counts. You can have a dream, but it doesn’t mean that others will believe in you. You can make them believers by staying consistent and perfecting your craft. I’m trying to show people that they can do it too. You have to protect those dreams in order for them to become a reality. I’m here to inspire and motivate people who have dreams that haven’t come to life yet. Each day you put one foot forward, you’re getting closer to turning your dreams into your reality.
Thank you, Chef TK! You can find Chef Tyler Kanwai on Instagram and TikTok, or at TK’s Surf and Turf Kitchen at 10890 E Dartmouth Ave #13, Denver, CO.
Inspired by this PeerForward Alumni’s story? Read more here!