Chef Chooses Higher Calling Over Posh Napa Scene Cooking in a premier restaurant in Napa Valley, Calif., would be a career high for many in the culinary world. But for Tim Hammack, there was something better: the Bay Area Rescue Mission. He now cooks gourmet meals for 1,200 people in need of a hand up.
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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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Some people who've fallen on hard times can still depend on a high class meal. That's thanks to the man we'll meet next. He was cooking in California's Napa Valley, home to many fine restaurants. Scott Shafer of member station KQED reports on what he's doing now.

SCOTT SHAFER: It's lunch time at the Bay Area Rescue Mission in Richmond, California, just north of San Francisco. Culinary director Tim Hammack is demonstrating the best way to chop onions.

Mr. TIM HAMMACK (Culinary director, Bay Area Rescue Mission): Food's always been a big part of my life, since I was young. I would always cook with mom and my grandma and my dad.

SHAFER: 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 discovered the cuisines of Spain and North Africa. When he returned to California, Hammack eventually landed a job at Bouchon, a renowned French bistro in the Napa Valley town of Yountville.

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

Mr. HAMMACK: And realizing that, in the Napa Valley, that I was - while enjoying the passion of cooking, I was cooking for, you know, very wealthy people and people of means, which - there's nothing wrong with that, but I just had a passion for people that didn't have means.

SHAFER: So eight years ago, Hammack was hired on as head chef at the rescue mission. He figured it would be a short-term gig.

Mr. HAMMACK: Leaving Bouchon and coming to the rescue mission seemed like a great idea. I told them that I would give them a one-year commitment. But once I got here being able to really change people's lives, turn them around, was something that was really appealing to me.

SHAFER: 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.

Mr. HAMMACK: For instance, yesterday, for lunch we made a creamed vegetable soup, garnished it with, you know, fried carrot shreds. And we made a homemade creme fraiche, and croutons, and some shredded bacon on top. You know, something that I would serve in a restaurant, and it was great.

SHAFER: Hammack says he revels in introducing his customers to the simple pleasures of things — like artichokes.

Mr. HAMMACK: We get a shipment of them in and we'll prepare them and maybe poach them in a (unintelligible), and then, you know, 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. You know, those kind of things give me a thrill.

SHAFER: 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.

Mr. HAMMACK: 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.

SHAFER: Most of the kitchen staff 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.

Mr. KEITH HARRIS (Bay Area Rescue Mission): One of his requests was for me to finish this program. But I know that I have to do this for myself.

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

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

SHAFER: For NPR News, I'm Scott Shafer in San Francisco.

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