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Chef Chooses Higher Calling Over Posh Napa Scene

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Chef Chooses Higher Calling Over Posh Napa Scene

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Chef Chooses Higher Calling Over Posh Napa Scene

Chef Chooses Higher Calling Over Posh Napa Scene

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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California's Napa Valley is home to some of the world's finest restaurants. But one of the culinary world's rising stars left the fancy restaurant scene to cook in a far different setting: a Bay Area soup kitchen.

Leaving Napa For Richmond

During lunch time at the Bay Area Rescue Mission in Richmond, Calif., just north of San Francisco, culinary director Tim Hammack is demonstrating the best way to chop onions.

"Food's always been a big part of my life since I was young," says Hammack. "I would always cook with mom and my grandma and my dad."

Hammack grew up in the Napa Valley. After high school, his infatuation with fine food led him on a backpacking trip to Europe, where he explored the cuisines of Spain and North Africa. When he returned to California, he eventually landed a job at Bouchon, a renowned French bistro in the Napa Valley town of Yountville, Calif.

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But just as his culinary career was taking off, Hammack started questioning where he was headed.

"I was cooking for very wealthy people and people of means, which there's nothing wrong with that," he says. "But I just had a passion for people who didn't have means."

So eight years ago, Hammack was hired on as head chef at the Bay Area Rescue Mission. He figured it would be a short-term gig.

"Leaving Bouchon and coming to the rescue mission seemed like a great idea," he says. "I told them I'd give them a one-year commitment."

Being able to touch the lives of others appealed to him — so much so that he didn't want to leave.

A Feast With Unpredictable Ingredients

The kitchen here feeds up to 1,200 people a day. Most are homeless and struggling to shake off drug use. They won't be getting rack of lamb or steak frites to eat — but this isn't your run of the mill soup kitchen, either.

"Yesterday, for lunch we made a cream veggie soup with homemade creme fraiche, something I would serve in a restaurant, and it was great," says Hammack.

He says he revels in introducing his "customers" to the simple pleasures of things — like artichokes.

"We get a shipment of them in and we'll prepare them, poach them, grill them and finish them with a little garlic sherry vinaigrette or something, and their eyes open up and they say, 'Wow, this is something special,' " he says. "That really gives me a thrill."

But it's sometimes also a tremendous challenge. Hammack has an annual food budget of just $10,000. The rest of the food is donated, often without warning.

"We may have a plan of what we're going to make for dinner for the evening, and then we get a load of something in and have to turn on a dime. And all of a sudden, we're making something completely different," he explains.

Life Lessons, Learned In The Kitchen

Most of the kitchen staffers are learning culinary skills as they go through a 14-month substance-abuse treatment program. One of Hammack's cooks is Keith Harris, a recovering crack cocaine user who pledged to get his life together after his father died of cancer earlier this year.

"One of his requests was that I finish this program," says Harris. "But I know I have to do it for myself."

Harris hopes to convert the skills he's learning here into a full-time job somewhere. And that's exactly what Hammack hopes for.

"If you can just roll with the punches and make the best of a situation that seemingly is not looking so good here in the kitchen," Hammack says, "it really sets you up to start making those good decisions in life."

Scott Shafer is a reporter for NPR member station KQED in Northern California.