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Soul Food: Rescue Mission rebuilds diets and lives

on October 13, 2009

The kitchen at the Bay Area Rescue Mission is doing more than just feeding healthy meals to some of the East Bay’s poorest people. It’s teaching them vocational and life skills, too.

For the last eight years, Chef Tim Hammack has helped run the culinary training and drug recovery program at the Richmond-based nonprofit.

Hammack, 30, is not your average soup kitchen director.

Hammack worked previously at Chez Panisse in Berkeley and at gourmet establishments in Napa. He is also the chef-founder of a high-end catering business, Bohemian Elegance.

But he’s at home in other worlds, as well; he grew up in low-income communities in Vallejo and American Canyon.

“It’s pretty easy for me to relate to these guys and interact with them on one level, and yet, I try to bring them up to the level of haute cuisine,” he said.

In addition to helping people who go through the recovery program, Hammack is hoping to improve the lives — particularly, the diets — of Richmond residents in general.

Hammack said that many of the kitchen’s visitors — some who stay overnight at the mission’s emergency shelter and others who are just passing through — would opt for a Big Mac over, say, the Brussels sprouts his cooks were blanching one recent afternoon. But he’s hoping to change that.

“I really want to see people’s perceptions of comfort food change,” Hammack said. “It doesn’t mean they have to eat sticks and twigs.”

Hammack added that for recovering drug addicts, establishing good eating habits is especially challenging. “If you look at someone coming off of drugs, they’re just cramming pastries down their throat.” he said.  He said that eating sugar and carbohydrates, like using drugs, releases dopamine in the brain and gives a similar feeling of satiation.

Hammack says he hopes that the trainees are able to stick with their improved eating habits after graduation. “I’m not just talking about the time of detox. I’m talking about making life changes.”

The training kitchen, located in the Iron Triangle neighborhood of Richmond, takes on around 14 to 20 people at a time. It’s one of several vocational training programs the mission offers, which all include GED, life skills, and religion courses. After completing the 14-month program, graduates can apply for a two-year culinary apprenticeship program to continue honing their kitchen skills.

Hammack said the kitchen culture’s emphasis on teamwork teaches participants the skills they need to reenter the mainstream.

“The nature of addiction, you’re kind of running your own show. You don’t have to answer to anybody and you just medicate if you don’t like it,” Hammack said. Kitchen work, he added, also requires a sense of self-confidence and drive.

Not surprisingly, graduates from the program mostly end up in cooking jobs — working in everything from steakhouses to pastry shops.

Hammack said about 40 percent of people drop out of the culinary program. He added that right now, more people than ever are trying the program for a second time.

“At first I would take it real personal when these guys would relapse,” he said, “but then I realized I can’t make decisions for them.”

Hammack said many of the participants had been addicts for decades and some have been jailed multiple times. Nearly a quarter of the trainees are on parole.

Finding common ground, then, could seem daunting. But for Hammack, the answer is clear.

The kitchen is where everyone gathers,” Hammack said. “And I think a great place to start rebuilding your life is around food.”

|Kitchen Close-ups


  1. jd on November 25, 2009 at 6:03 pm

    saw your story on the evening news.. got to say freakin rock..! good on you man..wish i had the balls to give up a more comfortable life style for something that really matters.. hope to overcome that soon though… once again– good on you man..!

  2. Pat on December 3, 2009 at 5:15 pm

    Kudos to the Rescue Mission and thanks for sharing the good news with us in the East Bay.

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