Chef Learns Love and Faith Are Life's Most Important Ingredients

A gourmet chef's journey of faith leads him to a new job and a new outlook on life.

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Posted in , Sep 10, 2010

Tim Hammack's journey of faith led him to the least likely of places.

It was past midnight when my shift ended and I walked outside into the warm California night.

The streets of Yountville, a small town in Napa Valley, were quiet. Lights were still on inside Bouchon, the gourmet French restaurant where I was an assistant chef. A few last customers lingered over dessert—crème caramel, tarte au citron, small cups of strong black coffee.

I took a deep breath. I’ve always loved the air in Napa Valley, full of California smells: dry grass, bay laurel, a hint of sea salt. I walked to my car thinking how happy I should be.

Here I was living my dream, working for one of the finest restaurants in one of the world’s food capitals. And yet I wasn’t happy. Something was eating at me—no pun intended. A conversation I’d had recently with a guy I knew from culinary school. I couldn’t put his words out of my mind.

Dave Perez and I had taken different paths after school. I’d apprenticed at a restaurant in Berkeley, epicenter of the American gourmet food revolution. From there I’d worked my way up to Bouchon, which was owned by Thomas Keller, a world-renowned chef.

Dave worked at a homeless shelter in one of northern California’s poorest cities, the Bay Area Rescue Mission in Richmond, about a 45-minute drive from Napa Valley. A few days earlier I’d sat down with Dave at a coffee shop.

“I’ve got a proposal for you, Tim,” Dave had said. “Your mom told me you might be just the person.” Dave happened to attend my parents’ church.

I listened as he sketched out his vision of a cooking school at the rescue mission, a hands-on kitchen where recovering addicts could cook food for homeless patrons while earning course credit in a local community college culinary program. “I want you to run the kitchen and teach these guys,” Dave concluded. “You’d be perfect. You’ve definitely got the cooking skills.”

Go from Bouchon to a homeless shelter? I didn’t say so to Dave, but that sounded like career suicide.

“Maybe I could volunteer sometime,” I said instead. “But I don’t think it’s the job for me.”

The job for me. The words echoed in my mind as I drove home along the highway, passing ghostly rows of grapevines receding into the dark. What was the job for me? Ever since I’d started at the American Culinary Institute straight out of high school I’d assumed I’d be cooking with the best of them.

I’d grown up on the outskirts of Napa Valley, and good food had been an integral part of my childhood. When I saw the test kitchens at the Culinary Institute, half a million dollars’ worth of equipment at each cooking station, I’d felt like a kid in a candy store. The best ingredients, the most careful preparation—I lived for all of that.

So why couldn’t I stop thinking about that conversation with Dave? A car whipped past—a BMW—and I had to laugh. Sometimes it seemed like every other car pulling up to Bouchon was a BMW or a Mercedes or a Porsche. Customers routinely spent hundreds of dollars on meals. The parade of luxury cars reminded me of my high school parking lot, where the sons and daughters of world-famous vintners had parked their own expensive wheels.

I sure didn’t drive one of those cars. My brother and I were raised in a trailer home on what passed for the wrong side of the tracks in Napa. I never minded because I knew exactly why my family lived as we did.

My parents were committed Christians and they’d decided to focus less on money and more on raising their boys and serving at church. My dad worked in construction, just enough hours to pay the bills. My brother and I were deeply involved in our small nondenominational congregation.

Even the trailer park was a plus. It was sheltered and the residents, mostly retirees, looked after us. Good food was part of my life not because we went to fancy restaurants but because my parents believed home cooking was one foundation of a strong family. That’s what Dad had learned from his mom, who’d survived the Great Depression and for most of her life grew just about everything she ate.

Visiting Grandma Nola, who lived several hours north, was a culinary adventure in itself. “Let’s see what God’s provided today,” she’d say, leading us into her jumbled, leafy garden. We’d roam among rows of collard greens, chard, peas, carrots, peppers and lettuces. Grandma Nola would fill her arms, and ours, and we’d stagger inside, where she’d already set out some sourdough starter for bread, prepared jars of brine for pickling and chopped onions, cabbage and ground beef for a German dish she liked to make.

Maybe that was it, I thought. Bouchon was nothing like Grandma Nola’s kitchen. The pressure was intense. Everything had to be precise. Mistakes were not tolerated. I felt physically drained every time I walked out into that cool night air. The work was exhilarating and I loved cooking with people as passionate about food as I was.

But I had to admit, the parade of luxury cars got to me sometimes. God, home, family, simplicity—those were the values of my childhood. Were they the values I was living out at Bouchon? Was I using my cooking skills for God’s glory? Or for my own?

Dave Perez, it turned out, was persistent. Even though I’d said no, he called back. A few days later I was having coffee with him again.

“I thought you might have reconsidered,” Dave said. “Why don’t you come to the rescue mission? It’d be easier to make up your mind if you saw the place.”

I already made up my mind, I wanted to say. But Dave was so friendly and so insistent I finally agreed to see the shelter. What could it hurt? At least then he’d have no more pretexts for asking me.

The rescue mission was in a scruffy neighborhood of stucco bungalows, chain-link fences and vacant lots. The building looked more like a warehouse. I parked my car in a tiny lot under a scraggly tree. Behind me a beeping forklift hefted crates of donated food. This definitely wasn’t the Napa Valley.

Inside, a gruff-looking man behind a desk eyed me suspiciously. “What are you doing here?” he asked. “You don’t look homeless.”

“I have an appointment with Dave Perez,” I said. Wow, I thought, this guy must deal with some rough characters. The man spoke into a phone and a few minutes later Dave strode out. “Great to see you, Tim!” he said. “Let’s take a tour.”

The mission wasn’t at all as I’d pictured. Rooms and hallways were spotless. The staff was a cheerful mix of paid employees, volunteers and the homeless themselves.

“We’re a Christian organization,” Dave said. “Our recovery programs are gospel-based, we say grace at every meal and we encourage people who use our facilities to chip in and help.” In addition to the men’s shelter where I’d met Dave, the mission ran a separate shelter for families and a large food pantry distributing groceries, clothing, furniture and just about anything else people down on their luck might need.

We entered a spacious dining room with tables arranged in rows cafeteria-style. Men sat hunched over plastic plates of food and jumbo-sized bottles of soda. Dave led me through a pair of swinging doors and suddenly I heard a familiar sound—the din of a busy kitchen. The mission’s kitchen was huge. Five-foot-tall bread racks jostled beside cavernous ovens, stainless steel counters and crates stacked upon crates of what seemed a totally random assortment of donated food.

“What do you think?” Dave shouted above the racket. I had to admit I felt more at home than I’d expected. Here was a kitchen. None of the equipment was top-of-the-line as Bouchon’s was. The ingredients—pallets of strawberries past their sell-by date, giant blocks of what appeared to be bologna—were nothing like Bouchon’s custom-grown organic meat and produce. But here was a kitchen.

Dave introduced me to some of the cooks. One was a recovering meth addict. Others had come to the shelter months before, drunk, strung out, at the end of their rope. “This place has been a lifesaver for me,” said one. The others nodded.

Something inside me seemed to shift. Those random ingredients—suddenly I saw my arms laden with produce from Grandma Nola’s garden. Boy, I thought, she’d have felt right at home here. She’d have waded into the challenge with gusto. With delight. And for God.

“You could really take this place to the next level,” Dave said. “The guys in here are eager to learn. And I’d love to serve our patrons truly delicious, wholesome food. What do you think?”

I looked at him. Already my excuses were evaporating. A voice inside—was it mine? God’s?—whispered yes. Before I quite knew what I was doing, I heard that word escape my mouth. Dave grinned. “I knew it!” he cried. “Tim, you’re going to love it here.”

Dave was right. Quitting Bouchon was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but the moment I parked my car in the rescue mission lot and strode inside to start my first day of work, I didn’t look back.

Today, my assistant chefs and I feed up to 1,200 homeless people a day, all on an annual food budget of ten thousand dollars. Most of our ingredients are donated and, just like Grandma Nola, I’ve gotten pretty good at conjuring delicious food from what looks like scraps.

Over the course of a year, 500 recovering addicts pass through my kitchen. Only about 70 stick with recovery and an even smaller number end up going on to culinary school. But I’m thankful even for those numbers.

Really, every meal here is a blessing. For the people we serve. For the guys who cook beside me. And for me, the gourmet chef who learned that sometimes love and faith are a successful kitchen’s most important ingredients.

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