The black-uniformed culinary students milling around Mud Hen Tavern chef Kajsa Alger are doing more than learning how to make a tostada with vegetarian chorizo. They're in the forefront of a new approach to charitable feeding.
L.A. Kitchen, a 20,000-square-foot facility just north of downtown, is the latest project of visionary Robert Egger, founder of the famed DC Central Kitchen in Washington. It is a teaching kitchen, reclamation center for wasted food and feeding facility for low-income senior citizens all rolled into one.
And that's just the start.
"Wrinkled food … wrinkled people … no waste," Egger says, like a mantra. "I want to expose what we throw away, what we waste, what we undervalue, and I want to show that it has profound importance."
Here's how it works: Fruits and vegetables that either haven't been sold or are unsalable because of cosmetic defects are collected from farmers markets and produce wholesalers by gleaning groups such as Food Forward and delivered to L.A. Kitchen.
SIGN UP for the free In the Kitchen newsletter >>
Culinary students — up to 26 of them, a mix of older men and women who have been recently incarcerated and younger kids who have just timed out of foster care — prepare dishes from those fruits and vegetables.
The current group is the first to use the new facility — three earlier classes were run in the kitchen at St. Vincent's Meals on Wheels.
Then groups such as Meals on Wheels deliver that food to the hungry — mainly low-income senior citizens, a rapidly growing demographic that previously had been served mainly shelf-stable, processed food.
"I want to be able to prepare the same fresh, healthy food for poor people that rich people get," Egger says. "Once you start to tilt in that direction, what you see is that it's not that hard to serve poor people really beautiful, delicious, healthy meals."
One charitable operation addressing three of society's most pressing problems — that's typical for Egger, a charismatic leader who already had created one paradigm-busting project in DC Central Kitchen.
DC Central was started in 1989 and quickly became iconic in the charity world for pioneering the re-use of food that otherwise would have been wasted. Today it is a self-sustaining, $11-million-a-year organization that has prepared more than 26 million meals and helped 1,000 workers transition into full-time jobs.
ALSO: Hunger benefits programs are vital to many farmers markets
The self-sustaining part is key to Egger's vision. Though L.A. Kitchen is starting on grants — including $1 million from the AARP Foundation, the biggest single grant in that organization's history — Egger's intent is for the project to stand on its own.
To get to sustainability, Egger will use an L.A. Kitchen spinoff called Strong Food that in the near future will employ L.A. Kitchen graduates to turn excess fruits and vegetables purchased from farmers into food that can be sold at a profit.
"Carrot sticks, celery sticks, tomato sauce, whatever they want, we'll provide," Egger says.
Every year, the city of Los Angeles puts out $10 million in contracts for feeding programs. And the Los Angeles City Council recently passed a measure that encourages its departments to buy food locally.
"We'll buy local," Egger says. "We'll employ men and women who would normally cost the state large amounts of money if they went back to prison. We'll prepare a healthier meal at a competitive price. And we'll reinvest the profit back into the job training program, which will start the whole process over again."
Back in the kitchen, Alger is dispensing equal amounts of kitchen and life wisdom. She demonstrates making fresh cheese and talks about caramelization and building flavor. But she also hands out a printed sheet — "Who Is a Good Cook?" — that includes basics such as "punctual and reliable" and "hard working and does more than is asked."
She says the message she wants to get across to the students is that there are more important skills than cutting the finest dice.
"The cooking part will come," she says. "The most important thing is to have a good work ethic and to want to work hard. If you can do that, the kitchen is a great place for you.
"I am a great example. I was a high school dropout, and cooking literally saved my life. There was so much going on, I just couldn't deal with it, but cooking gave me a place to go and focus my energies."
Theresa Farthing knows what she means. The 53-year-old, who lives at the Downtown Women's Center, is a graduate of the first L.A. Kitchen class — she was valedictorian — and is now working there preparing meals for senior citizens.
"This program for me was not just about learning to cook, it was life-changing," Farthing says. "I wouldn't be working now if it wasn't for this. I probably wouldn't be doing anything. But to be able to work and to use my skills to help other people, that's a great experience."
L.A. Kitchen, 230 W. 26th Ave., Los Angeles, www.lakitchen.org