September 24, 2018

Robert Egger, LA Kitchen and the power of food

I’m in a vast professional kitchen, standing by a stockpot the size of a Jacuzzi. The chef ladles a bit of the pot’s steaming brown liquid into a Dixie cup, then holds it out.  

“Try that,” he says. 

I tip the stuff down my throat.  It is earthy, salty. “Beef broth?” I guess.  

“Celery and onions,” the chef, Ryan Stewart, says. “That’s all it is! Celery that was going to be thrown out!” He fishes out a piece of limp cooked celery. “See, we got all the flavor out of it!” He pauses. “Sorry, I get excited about this.”

Beside me, Robert Egger, the founder of L.A. Kitchen, finishes his cup of highly reduced broth. Egger has a trim graying beard and a full-blast demeanor — and he is charged up.

“I see big thermoses of this, instead of coffee,” he says. “You just hit people with all that flavor and goodness!”

I’ve only been at L.A. Kitchen for a couple hours, but I already I’m pretty charged up, too. Turning celery into something spectacular is just a small part of the place’s genius. In the 20,000-foot commercial kitchen space in a converted warehouse just north of downtown Los Angeles, Egger has created a model whose goal is not just to transform people, but to change lives.

“Wasting food is a tragedy,” Egger tells me. “But the real tragedy is that we’re wasting people.”

It’s a mantra familiar to anyone who’s ever been within whispering distance of Egger, but in a society that regularly discards both, a person can’t say it enough.

In 1989, Egger founded DC Central Kitchen in the nation’s capital.  The organization has since prepared 26 million meals and helped 1,000 men and women transition to full-time jobs. In 2014, Egger headed to Los Angeles, where an AARP grant enabled him to create a state-of-the-art kitchen and training center. The digs are fancier but the core idea is the same.

Local growers donate or provide excess or unwanted food. Volunteers and professionals join with people in need of job training — former prison inmates, emancipated foster youth and others — in a 15-week training program that concludes with an internship and job placement in the hospitality industry. 

The meals the trainees prepare are distributed to social service agencies serving L.A.’s most vulnerable residents. And a separate for-profit business, Strong Food, contracts with government agencies to provide meals to the region’s burgeoning senior population.  

As Egger describes the model to me, I’m struck by how all the pieces fit together to address so many problems at once.

“It’s the power of food,” Egger tells me. “ I would say there’s hunger, and then there’s the deeper hunger. You know, the deeper hunger is people want to feel engaged, involved, needed.”

Part of the training involves introducing interns to the different food traditions of the cultures that make up L.A. For Chanukah, Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik of Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge came to discuss the holiday, then demonstrated latke making. I dropped in for that, then spent the next two hours with a half-dozen volunteers, taking the tips off two cases of organic green beans.   

This was not your grandmother’s soup kitchen. Interns in smart uniforms, nearing the end of their training, guided volunteers through the food prep.  

Egger has nothing against the soup kitchen model, where good-hearted people offer food to the needy. But L.A. Kitchen attacks the problem of hunger from all sides, with a focus on sustainability and job training.

“If you just feed somebody and you don’t liberate them,” he tells me, “it’s bondage. We want tzedakah,” he adds, using the Hebrew word for justice.

In Washington, Republicans and Democrats alike praised the program.  Attention from first lady Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey, both avid supporters, helped Egger land school food contracts, which grew DC Central Kitchen into an $11 million-a-year self-supporting nonprofit.   Without a high-profile champion in Los Angeles, orders to feed L.A.’s burgeoning senior population have proven more challenging.

Egger is out to convince the powers that be that a social enterprise model that replaces imported food, low wages and exported profits with local farmers, newly trained workers and profits returned to the community — all the while making healthy food that reduces health care costs — is better for all of L.A.

 “We’re the prophet in the wilderness screaming, ‘The seniors are coming! Let’s feed them better!’ “ Egger says.

Back by the celery broth, Egger shows off more of that food — pans of roasted root vegetables, bevel-cut and glistening with olive oil, and a garden of emerald-bright kale salad. 

 “I mean, this is beautiful,” Egger says. “It’s so beyond what most shelters get.”

I taste one last treat: a dessert truffle of rolled dates, nuts and honey. I walk out, knowing I’ll be back. 

A lot of people have been sitting shivah lately about the state of the union, paralyzed with anxiety or resolved to do something vague, like “resist.” But it seems to me the better plan is to find places like L.A. Kitchen, which offer a way to match our hunger to help with those who are truly hungry — then roll up our sleeves and dive in.


ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter ” target=”_blank”>@RobEshman.