Thursday, November 22, 2007

This Thanksgiving, his plate is full

THE Los Angeles Mission will serve Thanksgiving dinner today (a day-before-the-holiday tradition for decades) to anyone who wants it. More than 3,000 guests are expected, an estimated 500 more than were served last year, says Herb Smith, chief executive and president of the mission. The economy has been rough. But hard times aren't the only reason for the surge, Smith says: "We have the best food on skid row."

The menu for the feast here, like Thanksgiving menus everywhere, has treasured traditions -- dishes and gracious gestures the guests anticipate. The centerpiece of the meal, a big, meaty smoked turkey leg on each and every plate, is a symbol of abundance created by executive chef Chris Cormier four years ago.

"Our guests come here looking for connections, rituals, a diversion from an otherwise gray existence," says Cormier, 47, who was once homeless himself. "We have fresh flowers on every table and serve food we'd be happy to feed our own families."

Cormier first came to the mission because of the food. Of all of the soup kitchens where he'd eaten, this was the place that took pride in what was served, he says. One reason: The kitchen is staffed by students in the mission's chef training program. After coming for the food, Cormier stayed to work his way up through the training program he now runs.

The Los Angeles Mission, founded in 1936, moved into its current facility on 5th Street in 1992. The 394-bed shelter is now one of the nation's largest providers of services to the homeless, offering three hot meals a day as well as vocational training and continuing education. The Thanksgiving tradition, its most visible public event, takes place on 5th Street by the mission between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. It's a block party, with that section of 5th Street closed for the day so that dining tables can be set up in the street.

Because no one stands in line at home to be served Thanksgiving dinner, the mission's guests are served by 450 volunteers who have made this meal part of their Thanksgiving tradition. Guests sit with their friends, other members of the all-too-stable population living near the mission.

On each plate, that smoked turkey leg is accompanied by homemade mashed potatoes with country gravy, candied yams, mixed vegetables, cranberry relish and buttered rolls. There's pumpkin pie for dessert. The pies are donated, but the rest of the recipes have been developed by Cormier, who learned banquet-style cooking from "a couple of guys who used to run kitchens in Las Vegas," he says. "I like to use buttermilk in the potatoes to give them that extra flavor without loading them up with too much fat."

Cormier and his second in command, David Thomas, supervise cooks Carlos Castillo, Harold Reed and Nick Bautista and a rotating support staff. The crew cooks all day today, guaranteeing that everyone gets a hot just-cooked meal. The mission's well-equipped professional kitchen is "controlled chaos" during the event, Cormier says.

"Our friends and neighbors look forward to Chris' food," says Smith. "And not just on Thanksgiving. He makes a mac and cheese with three cheeses for Christmas dinner that people talk about all year. His food brings people to our door and we'll get to know someone. Hopefully, that meal will lead them to want to change their lives.

"Cooking is a bridge to self-sufficiency for the students working under Cormier. He shows them what he wants, then lets them learn by doing the work themselves.

"It was my lifeline back," Cormier says. "It inspired me to dust myself off and carry on.

"With a mother born in Jamaica then raised in Panama, and a father from Louisiana, Cormier's childhood in El Sereno revolved around the dinner table.

"My mother's gumbo was fantastic. She could make chicken wings a gourmet dish," he says. "I'd have cooking competitions with my friends to see who made the best chili or jambalaya." By the early 1980s he was a cook in Redding.

"Then I had my battles with addiction. I thought my life was over. I told people to just take me downtown and leave me," Cormier says.

Still, a man's got to eat. Cormier made the rounds of skid row's soup kitchens, sizing them up. "No matter how bad things get, if you know good food, you go looking for it," he says. "It's no different than music to a musician or a painting to a painter. Food inspires."

Cormier soon joined the mission's kitchen staff, moving on to work in the kitchen at other missions, straightening his life out along the way. He returned to Los Angeles Mission in 1997 and by 1999 was overseeing a revolving group of 30 students in the mission's kitchen.

"The beauty of it is seeing students who don't know anything when they come here and then they are able to go home and make dinner for their mom. Or get a job at a hotel, work at a grocery store deli counter, be a caterer," he says. "I get to teach these kids to go to the next step."

Participants in the mission's chef training program have the opportunity to earn their ServSafe Certificate, an accreditation by the National Restaurant Assn. that says the person knows the food safety rules for operating a commercial kitchen. "When they move on, they are able to get work, to get on with their lives, to return home."

And it starts with sitting down to eat a smoked turkey leg. Since Saturday, Cormier has been supervising revolving crews on the two refrigerator-shaped smokers in the mission's parking lot. His students have taken turns stoking the mesquite fire, spritzing the turkey legs with apple juice and rotating them to make sure every one is cooked perfectly.

Cormier made the smokers out of old transit cabinets, the 6-foot-tall metal storage racks that caterers use to wheel around trays of food. He drilled a line of holes along both sides near the bottom to let in oxygen to keep the mesquite wood burning. Another line of holes along the top and a few in the middle keep the air circulating. Dented metal restaurant trays hold the coals in the bottom of the cabinets. The turkey legs are lined up on wire baking racks that slide in, 5 inches apart, throughout the cabinets. There's just enough room for the smoke to surround each piece of meat.

Dropping a thermometer into one of the "breather" holes, he checks to make sure the smoker stays at 200 degrees Fahrenheit. At that temperature, it takes three hours to cook 65 legs. And four days to cook 3,000 legs.

Today, when Cormier looks down the long tables at his guests, he says, he'll be inspired all over again. "To see someone take joy in what you've created, it's beautiful."

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