When Food Isn't Just Food

homegirl.jpg A few years ago I became a head chef flunky at the Culinary Stage of the Los Angeles Times Book Festival. It was a way to keep up my prep cook skills, meet some heroes (Suzanne Goin, Lidia Bastianich, Martin Yan, Mary Sue Milliken & Susan Feniger, Govind Armstrong, Nancy Silverton) and TV star chefs (Giada DeLaurentiis, Tyler Florence, Dave Lieberman, Cat Cora).

The stage’s consulting producer, Michael Weisberg, took a leap of faith and allowed me to bring along Patricia Zarate and a few of her girls from the Homegirl Cafe to assist the celebrity chefs. This will be their third year at the Culinary Stage.

patty.jpg Patty founded the Homegirl Cafe as a one-room diner near Plaza Garibaldi in Boyle Heights. It’s part of Father Greg Boyle’s Homeboy Industries, a non-profit which trains and employs young men and women leaving the gang life. They run a bakery, landscaping and silk screening businesses as well as the cafe/catering company. I first came to Homegirl as a customer and then as a TV writer interested in developing a series about the place. The TV project never got off the ground but I was hooked on Patty and her girls.

If you've never been hungry it's hard to understand how cooking can change your life. I don’t even mean war refugee hungry. I mean poverty hungry -- where food runs out and regular meals don’t happen regularly. Parents are absent because they’re struggling, working 2 or 3 jobs. Maybe they have substance abuse problems. Or are incarcerated. Dinner around the table becomes a lost tradition. Nobody is cooking at home. Ask any public school teacher about their most disruptive students and you’ll likely find kids who are hungry. They can’t concentrate. They’re angry. They’re embarrassed. They don’t do well in class. They drop out. They can be quick to violence. Some end up in gangs.

I’m not a sociologist or criminologist. I’m a just writer and cook whose independent research has concluded that a person who can cook is empowered. You can feed yourself. You can feed others. You can knock something together out of the humblest ingredients or of the most exotic gourmet stuff you can't pronounce. Cooking is portable knowledge that expands with every experience and aspiration you have in life. The better you get, the braver you become in the kitchen -- and beyond.

girlsatwork.jpgThe other day at Homegirl, I gave a little workshop on knife cuts. One girl said she didn’t really cook and that she wasn’t good in school. I pointed out that she had just done math, French and science while learning to cut large and small dice, brunoise, batonnet and julienne. Another girl grumpily washing dishes laughed when I told her Tyler Florence and Anthony Bourdain started as dishwashers. Still another recounted how she botched a pot of beans. I told her Giada DeLaurentiis burned her pizzas at last year’s Book Fest and Mario Batali accidentally set the stage on fire a few years ago.

This is just beginning for these girls. If they can master the basics, they can get past the drudgery. If they develop the discipline, they can stand with professionals and work in the best kitchens in this town and elsewhere. And even if they choose another job or career, they will be able to cook for themselves and their families.

Food is not just something to eat. It’s a second chance. It’s a future. And cooking it is control in this very tumultuous world.
Visit the Homegirl Café for breakfast or lunch Monday-Saturday, across from the Chinatown Metrolink station.

Contributions in memory of Robert Graham may be sent to:
Homeboy Industries
Development Department
130 W. Bruno St.
Los Angeles, CA 90012

(323) 526-1254 ext. 301

Maria Elena Rodriguez is a writer who lives in California and has her own blog about food and travel called Madriguez.