This Nonprofit Is Feeding Ugly Vegetables to Hundreds of People Every Day
LA Kitchen transforms fruits and vegetables that are normally thrown away into amazing, balanced meals. In the process, they are changing the lives of their staff made up of mostly ex-convicts, recovering drug addicts and alcoholics, veteran...
"Neither food nor people should ever go to waste."
This is the motto that Robert Egger has fully lived up to at LA Kitchen, his self-sustaining social enterprise that was built around the premise of transforming bruised, overripe fruits and vegetables into amazing, balanced meals for the elderly and other people in need. In the process, he's been transforming the lives of his loyal staff, made up of mostly ex-convicts, recovering drug addicts and alcoholics, veteran gangbangers, and many other people just honestly looking for a second chance.
I am sitting in front of Egger in his tiny office at the LA Kitchen facilities in Lincoln Heights. He has taken a few minutes to try to explain the scope of his mission—all having to do with reducing food waste and helping out others—to me. This is what he has dedicated the better part of his life to and he can talk about a thousand different ways to better the American food system if given the chance.
"Remember reading about chef Massimo Bottura feeding 5,000 homeless people in Rio for the Olympics? We did that back in the day at DC Central Kitchen in 1989 with the fresh food leftover from George Bush's inauguration, man!"
Since his days of founding DC Central Kitchen in the 80s, Egger has always analyzed and deeply questioned the status quo of giving away food. He always knew that restaurants, catering groups, hotels, convention centers, and farmers had mountains of food they threw away every day, but he also knew that statistics showed that most people in need were single moms and elderly people. "What's someone like that going to do with a box full of persimmons? How are they going to store or know how to prepare a box of bok choy if they've never tasted it before? To trust that those things will get used and not just thrown out again is a huge leap of faith."
Thus, the LA and DC Central Kitchen formula were born: Focus on fruits and vegetables that are normally thrown away, make them as tasty as possible by hiring super-legit chefs to execute great menus, and change the country—one full stomach at a time.
Ryan Stewart, LA Kitchen's executive chef and his sous chef, Charlie Negrete, are some of the great talents that Egger has scored to help his dreams come true in LA. As soon as I'm done interviewing Egger, Stewart and Negrete each give me a small tour to get a glimpse of the high-caliber food preservation techniques that LA Kitchen is using to ensure that as little food as possible is thrown out.
First, Negrete shows me his latest batch of beet skins marinated with smoked paprika that he is dehydrating to use later as a crispy topping for salad. "It's like bacon bits, but bacon beets!" Stewart chimes in, before he runs downstairs to help a large group of volunteers break down some old Romaine lettuce heads and ugly carrots. Negrete follows up the joke with a bit of seriousness: "I'm basically using every single bit of training that I've learned after working 22 years in this industry under some of LA's most reputable chefs. But instead of cooking for the affluent crowd like I did when I was at Bottega Louie in downtown or the powerful pharmaceutical heads while I worked at Terranea Resort, I'm flipping it on its head and serving this food to people who are struggling or dealing or have dealt with drug-addiction like myself."
"I've been sober and clean for the last four and a half years, so I've really been able to focus on technique in the kitchen." He gently lets me know that his homeless father just passed away this year, so LA Kitchen's mission deeply resonates with him on a very personal level.
"It all connects."
His bag of tricks to deal with lessening the amount of food waste is neverending. After he gives me a taste of the smoky beet chips, he is excited to show me how he is also dehydrating pineapple cores to make into a powder. "This powder is great for dressings and marinades! It tastes like that Mexican powder candy that some of us grew up on, remember?" Lastly, he shows me a couple of containers and smiles. "Just because we are food enterprise kitchen doesn't mean we can't be a little soigné at times, we can flex too. I learned how to make some pretty cool modernist things when I worked under chef Josh Gil." He points to a container filled with a very fine olive oil powder and another with a few leftover egg yolks that are cured in salt.
I make my way into LA Kitchen's downstairs prepping facilities, where a couple dozen volunteers are busy chopping away at Romaine lettuce that has oxidized on its outer layers—though, you wouldn't know it if you saw the pile of lush, beautiful Romaine hearts that remained when they were done. I meet with Stewart at the end of the hall. He has been with LA Kitchen since the start of the program a couple of years ago. He moved here from Atlanta, after cooking at some reputable establishments in New York. At LA Kitchen, he is responsible for the sourcing of a lot of these visually distressed fruits and vegetables.
He begins to give me a tour of LA Kitchen's several walk-in refrigerators where they store the bulk of their donated food. The first one is full with mostly organic produce that is blemished or not big enough to sell at supermarkets. "This organic spinach is too small to be sold at a market, believe it or not. What we do is cryo-vac it—so it lasts a week longer—and we give it away to shelters." He shows me a container filled with barely freezer-burned cucumbers that "still taste good, especially when you juice them." Next, he brings down a big box of organic tomatoes that are a bit on the mushier side. "A lot of people would call these organic tomatoes too soft, but I call them perfectly ripe and most flavorful. They are great in a tomato sauce."
Stewart shows me a brief example of LA Kitchen's ingenuity by making a quick carrot stem chimichurri in their kitchen. It is tasty enough that I would buy a tub of it if it was available at my local supermarket.
Their second walk-in freezer has things like donated meat from Belcampo Meat Co. and other locally sourced goodies, like ready-to-blend, portioned-out frozen fruit pouches for instant smoothie packs. The latter are for drop-offs at places like women's shelters around the city. At the end of my food waste tour, Stewart assures me that every single piece of donated food is tested for safety before it is cooked or processed. They also keep the donated food separate from their purchased food. A good extra perk that has come from this sourcing system is that Stewart and LA Kitchen are now also giving family farmers other options to make money when their produce is not fit to be sold in a supermarket.
It could be argued that LA Kitchen's philosophy is not terribly different than the current trend to be more conscious about food waste going on in restaurants around the world. However, after meeting Egger and his hard-working team, it is safe to say that there is a little more heart involved behind some of the techniques that drive LA Kitchen.
Thirty years after DC Central Kitchen's inception, Egger's winning formula is as robust and impressive as ever, and he appears to show no signs of slowing down. LA Kitchen takes in about 500 pounds of food a day and provides 1,200 meals out of that. The goal for the end of this year, according to Egger, is to boost that to 2,500 meals per day. As I am walking out, Egger ecstatically informs me of the latest project that he is working on. It involves providing super-fortified, nutrient-dense hot vegetable broths made from the odds and ends of things at LA Kitchen to participants of local needle exchange programs.
"The idea is to avoid food—in any way, shape, or form—from going into the trash. That doesn't always mean going dumpster diving, because we are not. I am simply mesmerized of what it takes to get to this point because we are only getting started."
"Wrinkled food or wrinkled people, the idea is to show that just because someone or something has a bruise, blemish, or wrinkle doesn't mean that it doesn't have an important role in strengthening our society."
"The goal is to look past the superficial and dig deep to reach the potential."
Every day this week, MUNCHIES is exploring the future of food on planet Earth, from lab-grown meat and biohacking to GMOs and the precarious state of our oceans. Follow along with us here.