Bread and Roses may be one of the best restaurants in Venice, yet you’ve probably never heard of it. Its Executive Chef, Derek Brandon Walker, AKA, “Chef D,” won the popular Food Network’s competition on the TV show, Chopped, and on any given day, 150 people may be enjoying his steak adobe, salmon cakes, chilaquiles or veggie or vegan options. What makes this all so extraordinary? The cuisine is free, the wait staff may sit with their guests, and the clientele are homeless.
The St. Joseph Center’s Bread and Roses Cafe on Rose Ave. in Venice is one of many services that focus on the community’s survival needs–hunger, health and housing. Their Food Forward program includes food pantry donations for local families from local markets. St. Joseph also has a culinary training program that Derek heads up as Manager, Chef and Instructor, where he found his labor of love. He has taught valuable skillsets to hundreds of students coming out of rehab or the prison system, veterans, and those dealing with traumatic injuries and PTSD.
He was asked to speak with incarcerated youth by the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and City Councilman Mike Bonin 11th District. He has also worked with Mayor Eric Garcetti by lending his insight into the homeless crisis facing the city.
Having grown up around the Westside, Derek recalls, “I spent most of my time in Venice being a skater and surfer, getting in fights. I was a wayward kid. I grew up on these streets and a lot of my early memories were on Rose Ave. This was where it all went down,” where he knew plenty of people struggling with addiction and homelessness. Fortunately, in his late 20s, Derek discovered his passion for cooking in the Trade-Tech culinary arts program then earned his chops working with acclaimed chefs such as Sherry Yard, Ludo Lefebvre, Chris Blobaum, Wayne Elias, and Jennie Cook. After several years of cheffing into the wee hours, becoming a father of three girls was the real game-changer. When he found the day job teaching in a culinary school at St. Joseph Center, his immediate sense was, “It was meant to be. It sparked something inside me. That’s where I wanted to be. It represented so many aspects of my past.”
We all know the proverb: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” In Derek’s teaching kitchen, those words have never been more powerfully apropos. When students with “multiple barriers to employment” learn how to cook an exceptional fish, they not only can feed thousands, they can attain their own sustainable career and self-worth for a lifetime.
Derek confesses, “When I started, it was heartbreaking. I lost my students to relapse and to prison. You form a bond with them and they’re gone. It’s really emotional. You give them all the same opportunity but you can’t make anyone do it.” The good news though is, their success rate is 70 percent, an impressive average for any employment program. Jorge Rivas from Jefferson Park is one of many success stories. Once he got excited about cooking under Derek’s mentorship, Rivas worked with Puck at Spago, became a chef at Patina, then Executive Chef for years at the popular Blue Plate in Santa Monica.
Back on Rose Ave, Derek laughs, “Everyday is a challenge. We are running out of everything so we change the menu based on what is donated from day to day. We are constantly getting new donors and losing them.” About 75 percent of his food supply comes from the Westside Food Bank, and the rest comes from Panera Bread, California Chicken Cafe, Whole Foods and private money when available. Yet, these circumstances are what cultivated his unique style he calls, “improvisational cooking.” “Instead of coloring in the lines, the students learn how to improvise,” Derek says. “They get greater understanding of techniques that can be applied to any kitchen, and to life skills too.” While he is seasoning his students in a kind of pressure cooker, his respectful demeanor allows everyone around him to thrive.
Even the volunteers at Bread and Roses benefit from the cafe’s dynamic atmosphere. Larry Morris, who works in the entertainment business, says, “Derek is an inspiration to me. First day, I couldn’t believe how confident, dynamic and unassuming he was. When things got frenetic, he holds the calm.” It reminded Morris of the bumper sticker of a dog paw that says, “Who rescued who?” As a coffee server, Morris says, “Who is serving whom? Am I serving them or are they serving me? The answer is yes.”
Derek recently arrived at another turning point. He and his former student, Jorge Rivas, attended the funeral of their mentor, Thomasine Howlett, St. Joseph’s Program Manager. “I wanted to honor her. I also wanted to change Jorge’s life forever. So I poached him back. Now he is an owner,” Derek smiles. Jorge, Derek, and Jill Davie, his partner in their catering company, Venice Vegan!, are now all owners of The Mar Vista, a new restaurant “all about the local neighborhood.”
“We call it Angelino cuisine or Progressive Los Angeles. It’s beautiful and clean – a combo of Pacific Islander, Mediterranean, Asian, and Latin,” Derek says. Rivas contributes his Salvadorian heritage and his mother’s home cooking that came straight out of her garden, and the nostalgia of soul food. For Davie, The Mar Vista is an homage to her hometown. Together, this trio is making a difference in the food industry.
More than 80 percent of fruit, for example, is grown in Southern California, yet 40 percent of that is thrown out. So, Davie created a process she called “Cranked” in which she freezes the overripe-but-delicious fruit so it stays super sweet. Then, she puts it through antique cranks tableside and serves the luscious granita with toppings like quinoa. Derek is also passionate about fair treatment for restaurant workers: “The chef is at the top and the rest of the staff earns minimum pay. It’s my dream to break that down. We’re going to have a surcharge for the back of the house – five percent for the cooks.” And their philanthropy doesn’t end there. The Mar Vista will also be a teaching kitchen and, as if they don’t have enough on their plates, they will open Grab and Go across the street. Also on the table is a new TV show and a cookbook. “I’m blessed. I have loved my job for the last ten years,” he says, “I wanted to give back and I knew I could really make a difference.” And this rising five-star chef really has.
The Mar Vista opens mid-November.
12249 Venice Blvd; L.A. CA 90066
This article is a part of the Celebrating Food & the Harvest 2016 issue of Whole Life Times.