Derek Walker: ‘Hero Chef’
October 23, 2013
When Chef Derek Walker got the phone call this morning at 6:30, he was told Bread and Roses Café, where he’s plied his fine-dining craft for 6 1/2 years, had chicken donated by the California Chicken Café. And that got his creative juices going.
He decided to “repurpose” the on-hand pollo. With donated bread from Panera, he would make homemade bread crumbs. And then there were white potatoes to cut up into au gratin-like slices, plus enough blue, sharp and parmesan cheeses and sour cream to create a robust sauce. And vegetables, thanks to the Food Bank, were no problem, either. Asparagus, keel, red onion, and brussels sprouts would roast up nicely.
The end result would simply be a divine version of “Devil’s Chicken.”
After buying some other ingredients for the entree, he rushed to the café in Venice. The prep plan before the actual cooking started was clearly in his head. Now it was just a matter of pulling off the whole impromptu gourmet meal on time.
And all this wasn’t for tony Westside diners by the chef recently crowned “Hero Chef” on the Food TV Network’s top-rated “Chopped” show. No, it was for three grueling back-to-back one-hour sessions to feed the homeless at St. Joseph Center’s sit-down restaurant opened by two determined Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in 1989.
Before 8 a.m., Walker was in the submarine-sized narrow kitchen at Bread and Roses, dressed in the traditional white tunic with a black apron tied around his waist. But the tradition stopped there. He also wore baggy camouflage shorts to his knees along with black socks and shoes. And on the backside of his lower left leg was a noticeable tattoo. Standing over a big black stove, he was spreading the homemade bread crumbs on pieces of chicken simmering in the creamy cheese sauce. He tasted the chicken stock and seemed pleased, glancing over at one of the two young men in baseball caps working with him this morning.
“Spread the chicken out, that way it’ll roast better,” he said to one of them. But his tone was a lot kinder than the words spewed forth by semi-hysterical celebrity chefs on TV, who seem to like to demean their apprentices at every opportunity. When he put the chopped-up onions into three large frying pans and poured sweet Vermouth over the entree, an eye-watering but fruity smell rose up like a cloud.
Checking on the potatoes, he explained to the other helper, “You know what we’re doing? We’re just kind of like layering it. So now we’ll take these potatoes, lay them out, put some cheese sauce on it, and then put up some more potatoes and layer it on top of it.”
Then he spooned some almost clear stock over the vegetables before checking on how the layering was going. “Cool,” he remarked with a knowing half-grin. After a while, almost everything was consolidated into just two frying pans. “OK, turn down the heat to seven,” he said evenly.
Meanwhile, after being checked off the guest list on a clipboard by a young Jesuit volunteer named Emma Langley, 37 men and three women entered the dining room talking and laughing loudly. As they sat down at a dozen tables for four or two with checkered table clothes, another smell was suddenly present — the pungent stale body odor of living on the street, where a hot shower and change of clothes don’t come easy. Still, the intimate room had some of the ambience of a first-class restaurant with its tile floor, plain black chairs and overhead soft lighting. The walls were bare except for two very large painted roses — one red, one pink.
Walker didn’t seem to mind the new smell, though. He was too busy dishing out generous helpings of Devil’s Chicken with a silver tong, one plate at a time, to today’s waitresses from St. Martin of Tours parish. They, in turn, quickly carried the hot plates to waiting patrons at the tables. Toasted bread and coffee were also served, while another Jesuit volunteer went from table to table with a wicker basket, saying, “Anybody want a plum?”
But there was no rest for the three men in the cramped kitchen.
While the homeless dined, they went about preparing for the next serving at 10:30, and another after that. The routine was basically the same for the chef at the black stove. He took turns slicing potatoes on the metal counter with a quick rhythm that could be counted and carefully stirring the chicken stock. Then he placed the bread in big baking pans in precise rows a U.S. Marine drill sergeant would admire.
Every once in a while, however, he would crack a joke with a straight face that made his helpers laugh out loud.
Mis en Plas
“We’ve got to get this food turned around,” the 40-year-old chef was telling a visitor as he sliced more white potatoes. “I would say the turnaround is just as fast as at a regular fine-dining restaurant. It’s really just a matter of Mis en Plas, the central theme of cooking. It’s the preparation that we do before we start cooking a meal, understanding which ingredients are going to take the longest to prep, so that we can prioritize those in order so that they all come out together.
“That’s the trick,” he pointed out with a nod. “You’ve got to have everything prepared before you start.”
And, indeed, planning and preparation helped him succeed in a second career. Walker was working in public relations and even had his own firm, doing PR for independent films mostly. On shoots, he got to know caterers and would brag about his own prowess in the kitchen. After a while, they asked him to come work with them to see if he could really hack it.
“So I jumped in the kitchen with them, and I didn’t know up from down,” he recalled. “But I got in there and I really liked it.”
And he started taking classes in the culinary program at Los Angeles Trade Tech. After 18 months, he got a part-time union job at renowned chef-caterer Jennie Cooks’ restaurant in Culver City. “And the more that I was in the kitchen, the more I realized that that’s where I wanted to be,” he said.
“Why?” he was asked.
“Just being in the kitchen, I love the camaraderie,” he observed. “And I love, you know, the way that we all work as a team to produce something. I love the coordination, the ‘organized chaos,’ if you will. I love the idea that you’re only as strong as your weakest link and teaching people that they have to pull their own weight, and everybody works really hard towards a common goal. And the instant gratification that you get. Because either it’s good or it’s not good.
There were other jobs at acclaimed eateries. For years, the long hours were OK because he was still learning. But after he got married and the couple had their first child, getting home at 1 a.m. every night started taking its toll on the young family. So he decided to look for something with more regular hours.
“And since I came here 6 1/2 years ago, I’ve done 170,000 meals, give or take a few — 170,000 in this place,” reported Walker. “So I’m honored to, you know, take on the duty of Sr. Rose [Harrington] and the Sisters of St. Joseph, and carry on.”
After a moment, he had another thought.
“I always tell my fancy chef friends that I have the best job in culinary because I get to affect people’s lives,” he said. “To tell you the truth, I got burnt out on selling, like, $60 bowls of white truffle risotto in Santa Monica. I mean, this is so much more meaningful. I come into contact with people each day. Just as they learn from me, I learn from them: all their different stories, their places of origin, their cultures, their food traditions.
“And you never know what they have on hand until that day, which leads to a lot of improvisation in the kitchen. But I’ve become a better chef for it. Absolutely.”
It was this day-to-day coming up with different meals on the spot, according to Walker, that played a big part in him winning the Hero Chefs’ episode on Sept. 10 of “Chopped.” The competition involved preparing an appetizer from chicken soup, ground pork, patty-pan squash and barbecue sauce; an entree from scallops, Chinese broccoli, tamarillos and finger limes; and a dessert from aged cheddar cheese, Granny Smith apples, hamburger buns and vanilla frosting.
The national competition featured selected chefs who were using their culinary skills to serve the disadvantaged in their communities. And the prize was $10,000.
“It just went right in the bank for my three daughters’ — Lyric’s, Jameson’s and Illima’s — future college educations,” he said with a chuckle. “But it was nerve racking. You just have no clue to what’s going to be in those baskets for the three courses. I mean, they line you up and they open the baskets and boom! They start the clock and there you go.
“But it’s just an amazing opportunity for St. Joseph Center,” he added. “And we’ve been getting all these random contributions from around the country, because 8 to 10 million people watched that episode.”
A ‘sense of justice’
A big part of Walker’s love of working at the St. Joseph Center comes from his other job at the nonprofit, which offers intervention, prevention and educational services to the needy and homeless in Venice, Santa Monica, Mar Vista and surrounding communities. In the afternoon, Monday to Thursday, he runs and teaches the 10-week vocational Culinary Training Program at the center’s headquarters also in Venice. Many times a year CTP is offered, preparing its students for entry-level jobs in the food service industry.
There are six weeks of classroom studies, followed by four weeks as an extern at a local restaurant or hotel. Students also have the chance to work right in the kitchen with the chef at Bread and Roses. The classes are free, and can include case management and enrollment in the center’s food pantry program.
“I came here to really revamp the culinary school, and having Bread and Roses Café had to be explained to me: the synergy between the two programs and how important it is that the students get a lot of practical hands-on experience down here at the café,” he recalled. “And I thought to myself, we could elevate the level of food and then improve the experience for our homeless and low income people we serve.
“I find it’s a nice balance now. What do they say about teachers: ‘If you teach, you can’t do,’ right? Well, I get to do both. I get to come in and inspire and be on the line and pump the plates out and have that experience of real service. And then I get to go into an academic environment and lecture and do demos.”
But Walker said he often jokes, “I haven’t had a lunch in 6 1/2 years.” And he’s not kidding. He barely has time to get out of the kitchen at Bread and Roses by 12:30 so he drives across town to prep for the 1:15 to 4:30 afternoon class at the center’s practice kitchen.
When questioned about his tight work schedule, however, he simply shrugs and says, “It’s neat.”
The transition from working in fine-dining restaurants to his duel jobs at the St. Joseph Center also meant a significant pay “sacrifice.” But he said it balances out because he’s able to keep a catering business going, too, with his more normal hours.
“I’ve never had a job more rewarding,” declares the chef. “You know, I grew up in this neighborhood. Some of my friends’ parents were homeless and lived in the trailers that park along Rose Avenue here in Venice. So I have an intimate knowledge of this area and what’s been going on for a long time in this community. And it’s all about restoring dignity.
“Because a lot of these people have been disenfranchised not only from society but from their own families. And so to bring them into an environment like Bread and Roses, sit them down and look them in the eye, speak to them in a civil manner, and recognize what their needs and wants are — that’s what it’s all about.
“And then to give them the best food and dining experience, why not?” he stressed. “Why not give them, you know, a better meal than somebody’s paying 30 bucks for down the street.” After a pause, he said, smiling, “I love that sense of justice.”
‘Treated like a human being’
Art Ginsberg said he comes to Bread and Roses Café about every morning for the 9:30 session. The 42-year-old Puerto Rican lost his wife to cancer in Hawaii and then his house. He works part-time today as a dishwasher and sleeps in his car.
“This place is great,” he said, sitting at a table with three other guys, one of them reading the Los Angeles Times. They’re all waiting patiently for their plates of Devil’s Chicken. “I heard two Sisters founded it, and it’s very amazing. I’ve never come across anyplace like this before that had this kind of service, you know, like a restaurant setting.
“It’s very nice for the homeless,” he noted, as the hot entree was placed in front of him. “And there’s a famous chef back there.”
A classical sonata was playing over the sound system when Ed Randolph, 59, got his meal at a nearby table. He lives in the back cab of his Ford Bronco truck, mostly parked on streets around Santa Monica, where he was born. The former boiler technician in the U.S. Navy said he “blew all his money” after coming home from the Persian Gulf.
He also relies on Bread and Roses for his main meal during the week. “It’s always good, and he cooks a lot of different things: spaghetti, meat loaf, chicken cacciatore,” Randolph reported. “It’s the best food around. You can’t beat it. And he’s a really good guy, never gets mad, nothing. He doesn’t do that chef stuff.”
Jeffrey Peninger got to the café early today, making sure he’d get one of the 40 slots in the 11:30 session. He admitted having some mental problems that led to being evicted from his apartment 3 1/2 years ago. But the 47-year-old man, who grew up in West Hollywood, said he’s really been homeless “off and on” since he was 13.
“I’ve seen food lines, I’ve seen all of it, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Peninger pointed out. “You sit down and they bring the meal to you. So this is more like a home with extraordinary meals. And any one of them could be served in a restaurant. This is more like you’re being treated like a human being than standing in line on a corner.”