Last night I was truly blessed to enjoy “Friendsgiving” hosted by my good friend, Vanessa Ryan. Vanessa and I first met when I was a regular volunteer at the Orange County Rescue Mission. As I was working through the idea and concept of Bracken’s Kitchen, the rescue mission provided me an up close and personal look at poverty and to some degree hunger. I cooked dinner there every Wednesday night with Vanessa as my Sous Chef. Her regular full time job was at the Allergan Foundation. She loves cooking and, like I, volunteered her time at the mission. During those 2 ½ years of volunteering together we became close friends.
While “Webster’s Dictionary defines friendship as the act of being friends my definition is simply, a blessing. To be able to come together and break bread with so many of our regular kitchen volunteers, i.e. friends was special indeed. As I enjoyed the evening it occurred to me that most of the people that came together to enjoy dinner were strangers just a couple years ago. Little did I know how the decision to create Bracken’s Kitchen would have such a profound impact on my life and the lives of so many others.
This morning in church we had a guest speaker who spoke about “Teaming Together” and how we can accomplish so much more when we work together. While we all understand the concept of getting more done through teamwork, most humans often think of themselves first. That leads to the big question. Will I push past “Me First” to be a part of something greater than myself. I found it quite ironic to hear this message after contemplating all the blessings that our little kitchen as brought to our family. Indeed, pushing past me first to be a part of something bigger has helped me in many amazing ways.
While working through this in my mind, it occurred to me that many of you, our regular supporters, may not know exactly what “Something Bigger” looks like at Bracken’s Kitchen. So, I write this letter to share the bigger picture of our little kitchen and what we are all working so hard to build. After all, together we can do more.
The future of Bracken’s Kitchen is quite clear to us. At the core, we are simply a catering company. We just happen to cater to those who cannot pay for a meal. While we currently share kitchen space we envision a future in our own production kitchen. Like a large catering kitchen, it will be a space where we can operate and execute all our programs. We see 4-5 food trucks operating from that kitchen. Trucks that balance their time between feeding the less fortunate and earning income for our programs through catering services. After all, it is imperative that a nonprofit work toward sustainability. Our catering services will focus primarily on supporting other nonprofits, providing for their food needs, while helping them to manage their costs.
Rescuing and re-purposing food is here to stay, in fact it represents the future in the battle against hunger and food insecurity in America. With the passage of AB 1826 California has taken the lead to ensure the reduction of food waste entering our landfills. Key players in that effort is organizations like Waste Not OC and the Chef’s To End Hunger program. They both work to ensure that excess and over prepared foods are used for their intended purpose, meals, not compost.
Our recovered food program will play a very important role in expansion and our ability to have a larger impact on the lives of those we serve. A large portion of our kitchen will be dedicated to receiving and processing the vast quantities of recovered food that we receive. Those food items range from dead stock frozen meats and poultry, to off spec items from local food production facilities to excess and over prepared foods from local restaurants, hotels and catering companies. It also represents an enormous amount of fresh produce grown specifically for us as well as produce items gleaned from the local fields thanks to an army of volunteers.
Once re-purposed and prepared into healthy and nutritious meals we will send them out in support of a plethora of local nonprofit organizations. From local churches who need support with their homeless outreach to a local shelter or home for abused women, we come along side to provide high quality meals prepared by professional chefs.
Throughout the kitchen you will find the students who have been accepted into our Culinary Work Force Training program. We have learned over the past 4 ½ years that the only way to have a longer lasting impact on the lives of those we serve is by providing them with a path out of poverty. Like the age old saying directs, Give A Man A Fish And You’ve Fed Him For A Day, Teach Him To Fish And You’ve Fed Him For A Lifetime. While we hope to help foster in the future Top Chef’s of Orange County we recognize that not all of our students will aspire for such. At a minimum we will teach valuable life skills to our students.
Our programs work together symbiotically to support each other. Our recovered food program provides the food supplies to support our culinary training program while the foods prepared by our students supply our food truck feeding programs. We are close to bringing all our programs into full operation with an eye on the future. Once in full operation we start to look at and consider expansion. It is our belief that every major food bank in America should have a recovered food kitchen that it works closely with.
When I pondered this calling, years ago, I knew I was called to have a big impact. I easily could have continued my career in the luxury hotel world while volunteering at places like the rescue mission as a way to do my part. I knew then, like I do now that my future lies in doing so much more. Was a small-town country boy from Kansas led down a career path of meeting & cooking for presidents & Hollywood celebrities so that he could offer his skill from time to time. I think not. By working hard to leverage the amazing relationships I have built during a 28 year career in Southern California we can and will have an enormous impact.
Along this journey, we have learned there is a huge gap in the hunger relief model that America has relied on for so many years. A disconnect between the food we provide and the health of those we offer it to. A disconnect between the culinary arts and the food insecure living in America. A disconnect between the food itself and the people who need it.
We will strive to close that gap. After all, since when did a tasty and nutritious meal become a luxury in America. By teaming together we can accomplish so much more and we will work tirelessly to do just that. It has proven to be a fun filled, blessed and exciting ride and we hope you will join us for the fun.
With thanksgiving in mind, I want to offer a sincere “Thank You” each and every one of you. Those who have volunteered and given of their time, talent and treasure. Those who have offered an encouraging word and pat on the back. And those who have just offered up their prayers in support. I am forever changed and grateful to all of you.