A vivid red food truck summoned children from the playground at a Santa Ana after-school program with a loud burst of its distinctive horn: Aah-oooh-gah. A burly, bearded guy with a clean-shaven head steered Betsy, his 1986 truck, into a nearby parking lot where portable tables were set for dinner under pop-up tents.
Chef Bill Bracken had come to serve free, hot meals and take-home add-ons that he and a corps of volunteers prepared for the children and their families, all homeless or hungry, or often, both.
Betsy may be the most visible element of Bracken’s Kitchen, an innovative hunger-relief program started in 2013 by the former luxury hotel executive chef. The truck is one of a trio of services that also includes a recovered-food program and, coming soon, chef
training that gives at-risk youth culinary job skills while they provide Bracken’s Kitchen with labor assistance.
Together, they create a virtuous circle that feeds the hungry while giving farmers an incentive to harvest surplus and imperfect crops, reducing the environmental impact of food trash and eliminating prepared food waste. In 2017, Bracken’s Kitchen made more than 40,000 meals for Orange County residents who struggle daily to survive.
The program is notable because it introduced a new concept to hunger relief operations – the food recovery kitchen. “We feel that our trio of services is a unique combination that nobody has done before,” says Bracken. “Add to that the creation of our Recovered Food Production Kitchen, which takes mass quantities of food recovered from hotels, restaurants, grocery stores and suppliers and turns that into tasty and nutritious meals to support other smaller organizations and you have a one-of-a-kind operation.”
Unlike food banks that warehouse canned, dried or processed ingredients for donation, Bracken’s Kitchen uses top-tier, fresh food to create hot, nutritious and tasty meals. “We are a large, professional kitchen, so we have a lot more resources to deal in fresh produce and perishable food,” Bracken says.
Recent menus have included roasted chicken stew with red quinoa and summer vegetables; picadillo made with grass-fed beef, venison, elk and rabbit from the Newport Meat Co.; shepherd’s pie with Angus beef; organic beef lasagna; roast turkey with chestnut stuffing; and banana-and-chocolate bread pudding.
“I’m cooking the same way I always have,” says Bracken, who earned national attention as executive chef at the Four Seasons Hotels and The Peninsula Beverly Hills. The Peninsula’s restaurant earned five-star ratings for 12 consecutive years on the strength of Bracken’s cooking, known for elevated comfort food. Now when top suppliers and restaurants donate gourmet ingredients, Bracken knows how to make the best use of them.
There have been large, luscious shrimp and piles of beef cheeks that bolster jambalaya or stews; filet mignon for beef stroganoff; gourmet bread that he chunks into croutons and bread pudding; and enormous wheels of artisan cheese that are mixed into mashed potatoes or handed out by the brick.
The donations are what chefs call over-prepared food, the often-necessary but excess ingredients required to meet peak demand and expectations. Through programs such as Chefs to End Hunger, restaurants and other food preparers use a standardized system to safely package and deliver the extras to places like Bracken’s Kitchen. That’s where the chef shows his genius in creating meals with broad appeal.
The self-described Kansas farm boy has tapped into virtually every aspect of his 35-year culinary career to attract support for the enterprise. Bruce Hecker, president of Bruce’s Gourmet Catering, retired Betsy from movie set catering and gave the truck to Bracken to launch his mobile dining effort. Andrew Gruel, founder of the Slapfish restaurants, ran a fundraiser for a second food truck. To reach the 49 percent of Orange County children who receive government-subsidized lunch during the school year, Bracken launched an Indiegogo campaign to help keep them fed through the summer. And then there was the “Pizza Showdown” he organized, a friendly competition pitting young chefs against “old” to see who could make the tastiest pie, all for the sake of charity.
At a shared commercial kitchen space in Huntington Beach, Bracken offered the owner access to his top-grade kitchen equipment in exchange for free rent. Nearly daily, friends, fellow chefs and members of his place of worship, Seabreeze Church in Huntington Beach, volunteer there to transform the industrial-size donations. As the crew dices bushels of onions, blends gallons of salad dressing or slices mounds of pork chops under Bracken’s guidance, the kitchen turns out three-course meals for an astonishing 30 cents each.
The virtuous circle continues to attract cash, service and product donations from sources such as the Allergan Foundation, Solutions for Urban Agriculture, Impact Giving, Waste Not OC Coalition and LA & SF Specialty.
The services of Bracken’s Kitchen aren’t just about charity. Food waste is estimated at 30 to 40 percent of the nationwide food supply, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If crops aren’t perfect or become too costly to harvest, they’re left to rot in fields. Restaurants once feared lawsuits if they donated food that was inaccurately perceived as old or spoiled. Laws have changed, and so have attitudes and awareness about the impact of food waste on the population and the planet.
Hunger-relief organizations have worked for decades to close the gap between excess waste, or “recovered food,” and hungry people, but there’s often been a missing link. That’s where Bracken, like a contestant on the reality show “Chopped,” illustrates how to take random ingredients and cook them into delicious, healthy meals.
“He has a skill set that goes far beyond most people in the world of philanthropy,” said Jordan Perkins, executive director of Solutions for Urban Agriculture, which runs a program to glean produce from area farms for Bracken’s Kitchen. “He clearly left a very lucrative career to do something that he’s very passionate about. We want to support that.”
Those skills also caught the attention of Mike Learakos, executive director of the Waste Not OC Coaltion and president of TJM Inc./Katella Grill. As Waste Not OC was developing a model to eliminate hunger and reduce food waste with wholesome, fresh recovered food, Bracken was thinking along the same lines.
“One critical element of our model is the use of ‘food recovery kitchens’ to repurpose and/or repackage recovered food in a manner that extends the product shelf life, eliminates waste at the food pantry level and ensures food safety,” Learakos wrote in an email. “After meeting Bill three years ago, we immediately hit it off, and it was then I identified Bill as a vital part of the model and Bracken’s Kitchen as our pilot food recovery kitchen.”
The model is extending even further into the community. With a tasty meal as the draw, Bracken’s Kitchen boosts attendance at other charitable events. He’s partnered with the Beach Coin Laundry’s Laundry Love Project to feed participants while the laundromat’s volunteers wash up to 100 loads of clothing. In the works: Doctors from the Edinger Medical Group of Fountain Valley will ride along with Betsy to perform free medical checkups. “The doctors recognize what we do in terms of nutritious, healthy meals,” said Bracken. “They know all of the issues related to food insecurity.”
Now the chef has expansion plans. He envisions a fleet of trucks, a permanent kitchen, a statewide or national program, and additional staff who can help Bracken move from behind the wheel (or the stove) to share his management and cooking skills.
“I spend a lot of my time guiding and teaching my volunteers. Teaching a young person culinary skills helps break the cycle of poverty,” Bracken said. “We can feed them all day long, but guess what? Tomorrow they wake up hungry. If we can have impact on the long-term cycle of poverty, then we can really make a difference.” Bracken knows that his meals aren’t just about food. “It’s the idea that someone cares, that there is hope,” he said.
At the end of the meal in Santa Ana, Bracken packs Betsy for the drive back to Huntington Beach, where he’ll end a typical 12-hour day. Turning to explain why he works so hard, he repeats a favorite saying, “Feeding people isn’t the same as nourishing them.”
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