It's Tuesday morning when Bill Bracken hops on the phone while Bracken's Kitchen is in full swing. This week, the Garden Grove-based non-profit is set to provide meals to 15 different organizations that help feed people in need. Already, one van has left Orange County to bring 735 meals up to Los Angeles. Later on, a shelter in Anaheim will pick up meals, as will the homeless youth group Stand Up for Kids. Tonight, Bracken's Kitchen will take their truck, Betsey, out to Santa Ana to serve meals to the families of the kids who are part of an after-school program for homeless children.
"We've fallen into a routine in our kitchen over the last couple months," says Bracken. It's a routine, though, that requires a lot of juggling as they handle everything from individual meals for people who live in hotels and motels to trays meant to feed larger crowds. Today, they're balancing everything from barbecue chicken to cheeseburger macaroni and cheese to breakfast bakes, along with salad and fruit preparation. And the team here isn't massive. There's an executive chef, three cooks, a dishwasher and, on this particular day, an estimated eight volunteers at work.
Bracken has been working in kitchens since he was 12 and, in the course of his career, he became an award-winning chef. He worked in luxury hotels and cooked for celebrities, but says that Bracken's Kitchen has been "life-changing and soul-changing."
The seeds of Bracken's Kitchen were sown after the economy crashed in 2008. "I watched a lot of really good people lose their jobs and struggle just to put a meal on the table," he says, "and it was then that food insecurity became real for me and, quite frankly, the face of hunger changed, at least here in Orange County."
It took another few years, though, for the idea to fully take shape. The business plan came together with time. One day, he was sitting inside Starbucks when he saw a food truck pass. "I had the idea of a food truck bringing food to those people who need it, instead of asking, expecting them to come to a soup kitchen," he recalls.
Now, he says, the food truck is just part of what has become Bracken's Kitchen. The chef wanted to continue cooking in a way similar to what he had been doing in high-priced establishments. To an extent, Bracken's Kitchen has been able to do that. Thanks to food recovery services, they get excess, quality products from sources that include the same distributors who service restaurants. Bracken mentions that he has a rack of veal, some caviar and lobster claws in the freezer. He's thinking about using the lobster claws in a seafood chowder or pasta dish.
"I get to be every bit as creative as I used to be, but instead of figuring out the neatest coolest way to serve this foie gras dish," he says, "I'm figuring out what I can do with lobster in the freezer."