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Desert Companion

The dish: ‘Make something you would eat’

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Catholic Charities
Photography by Brent Holmes

For the chefs at Catholic Charities and the Las Vegas Rescue Mission, every day is a challenge to make meals that are more than just sustenance

Sixty gallons of chili boil in the back kitchen of Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada on Las Vegas Boulevard. Executive chef Jun Lao reaches for a metal instrument that looks more like a boat paddle than a kitchen utensil, and gives the chili a stir. He mostly does this to break up the chunks of ground beef that had been frozen, thawed, and added into the mixture about a half-hour prior.

“You can’t use just your arm strength to stir, or else you’ll get tired,” Lao says. Years of experience stirring countless soups, pastas, and other dishes have made him an expert on properly mixing whatever is in his pot. “You gotta use your leverage,” he says.

Sammy ChongLao has been a chef nearly 22 years, eight of which he’s spent here. He is in charge of feeding the hungry and homeless several meals a day, some for as many as 600 to 900. A mile and a half away, the Las Vegas Rescue Mission’s kitchen, under the direction of executive chef Sammy Chong, has a similar mission.

“It’s nice not to have to worry about where my food is coming from,” says Joseph Wilson, a 65-year-old resident at Catholic Charities during one morning meal. He’s been at the facility for five months, where he has sought to gain new skills, find employment, and get back on his feet. “The people who aren’t coming here or aren’t going to the Rescue Mission are out there hungry, begging for food, and probably stressed out. When they’re stressed about how they’re going to eat, they can’t think about getting a job.”

Support comes from

While they don’t know each other, both chefs are bonded in one commonality. Both are tasked with feeding the multitudes despite dealing with sporadic supplies, sometimes limited resources, and stringent daily deadlines. “Working in this kitchen is like constantly being on an episode of Chopped,” Lao says. But unlike the Food Network show (on which chefs make a meal from a basket of mystery ingredients), he has to cook for more than three judges. “You know when you go into your refrigerator and think, ‘Hmm, what will I make today?’” Chong asks. “It’s like that, but for hundreds of people.”

Catholic Charities serves three meals a day: breakfast from 7:30-9 a.m., a community meal from 10-11 a.m., and lunch from noon to 2:30 p.m. The community meal is free and open to all while the other two require a nominal cost. The Las Vegas Rescue Mission has three meals open to residents who are part of its program and one community meal open to the public at 5 p.m. “The way it’s set up works out,” Wilson says. “I know guys who come here in the morning and then head to the Rescue Mission in the evening. I’ve never had to do that, but many people do.”

But these chefs aren’t just dishing up sustenance. Each day, they figure out how to make their meals as satisfying and flavorful as possible. “This is far more than a meal for people,” Chong says. “This sends a message that they matter.” Long gone are the days of simple, turn-around meals such as turkey a la king, shredded turkey on top of peas and carrots. “Why would you shred a perfectly good turkey or cook it until it’s completely dry?” Chong wonders. “You have to cook something you would want to eat.”

 

‘YOU’D BE AFRAID TO TURN AROUND’

Lao didn’t learn culinary arts through a school or a program. Beginning as a dishwasher at a Mexican restaurant in California in the mid-’90s, he climbed through the ranks as a busser, server, and line cook before becoming an executive chef. After mastering that menu, he switched to a Hawaiian restaurant for three years. Then Indian. Finally, Italian. “Mastering Italian sauces is the hardest one,” he says.

When his wife wanted to move to Las Vegas to be closer to her family, he thought entering the culinary industry here would be easy. He was wrong. “We moved here in 2008 when things were getting bad,” he said. He eventually found work in the kitchen at Centennial Hills Hospital. Then he landed at Catholic Charities, where he continued learning under the previous executive chef before eventually replacing him in October.

Working in restaurants, Lao says, was tiring. “You would be staring at all these tickets and just be thirsty,” he says. “You’d be too afraid to turn around and grab water because you know when you turn back, you’d be lost.” At the same time, he admits he misses the straightforward nature of cooking to a set menu, and thinks he might consider a part-time job as a night cook at a restaurant willing to work with his Catholic Charities commitment.

Chong doesn’t have a degree in culinary arts, either — he is a former chemist with a degree from the University of California, Berkeley. His dad was a cook, which allowed him to learn about the industry. “But being an immigrant, everyone wanted me to be doctor,” he says. He worked his way through his degree by being a cook. After working as a chemist for a few years, he realized he didn’t like the profession and found his way back to the kitchen. He started as a chef for the Hyatt Regency San Francisco, learning various cuisines from Italian to Southwestern. “Then (my family) had this crazy idea to pick up and move to Las Vegas in the late 1980s,” he says.

Chong bounced around at casino properties, including Excalibur, MGM Grand, and Station Casinos locations. He spent eight years as the corporate executive chef for the Riviera before becoming an executive chef for the frozen-food company Overhill Farms, based in California. Eventually, he left that job to move back to Las Vegas, and has been at the Rescue Mission about a year and a half.

LVRM

‘IT LOOKED HORRID. IT WAS DELICIOUS’

Restaurants have set menus, preordered ingredients, and a rigid structure. In these kitchens, the chefs have to think on the spot and be more creative with the resources they have. Despite his best efforts to plan menus, there are just too many variables, Lao says: “Every day I come in here and don’t know what I’m going to cook.”

On one March morning around 4:30, his usual start time, he looks at a large package of red beans and says, “That could be Cincinnati Chili” — a meaty sauce usually served on top of spaghetti noodles. “Instead of spaghetti we are gonna do penne noodles,” he says. “It’s easier for our volunteers to scoop and serve.” The community meal for the day is decided.

Chong makes meals of items that have been collected through food drives and donations, purchases the nonprofit has made, and supplies provided by Three Square Food Bank. Sometimes a restaurant or casino will send over last-minute food items, changing the menu or the plan. One Wednesday afternoon, before the cooks begin prepping dinner, the rescue mission receives hundreds of leftover sandwiches that were premade for a corporate event but went untouched. Instead of scrapping dinner, Chong will set the sandwiches out for guests to take with them.

Lao has been in charge only a few months but has already made changes. For years, he says, if there were leftover items at the community meal, they would just incorporate it into the lunch. Since coming on, he has worked to make each meal distinct, perhaps adding Indian flair or Mexican inspirations. He has also tried to bring back some requests, such as biscuits and gravy, or be more creative by, for example, making frittatas for breakfast. “It might be more time consuming, but it’s worth it to see their faces,” he says.

Chong also strives for diverse meals. “We did curry hamburgers one day,” he says. “We’ve tried Asian dishes, Hispanic dishes. On those days, we always have fried chicken on the side, just in case.” He wants to get to a place where each day is a type of cuisine. “We would stick to that theme and just make different meals,” he says. Catholic Charities resident Wilson admits he’s been wary of some of the dishes. “One time, they had this Spanish dish,” he says. “It looked horrid. They put it on my plate, and I gave it a try. It was delicious.”

 

‘IT WAS SIMPLE, BUT IT LOOKS LIKE THEY ENJOYED IT’

In the span of 30 minutes during meal prep one morning, Lao has started several tasks, from chopping fresh dill and fine-tuning the chili to starting a gravy and stirring potatoes. While the staff in the front of the kitchen is preparing the day’s cuisine, workers in the back are prepping, cooking, wrapping, and storing Meals on Wheels entrees to be frozen and delivered another day. In the middle of a task, Lao spots a cart full of recently donated brisket. He glides over to the meat and imagines all the things he could do — ideas for a meal another day this week.

The clock inches closer to the community meal deadline, and each cook finishes as “Bennie and the Jets” plays in the background, not that anyone can hear the music through the roar of overhead vents, the grill, and the banging of pans.

However many tasks he’s juggling, Lao keeps making his way back to the chili. Periodically, he takes a clean, unused plastic spoon from his pocket to take a taste.

“More salt,” he says.

Over at the rescue mission, lunch is being prepared. Chong walks past his workers, overseeing their duties. “Add a little more water,” he says to one resident of the mission. “The rice looks a little dry.”

One challenge both chefs face is making sure they have the right amount of food at each meal. “At the beginning of the month, the numbers are less,” Chong says. “Our numbers pick up the last of the month.”

At Catholic Charities, the meal of Cincinnati chili is being made on the third week of the month, which Lao says averages 500 to 550 people for the community meal. The chili is about 60 gallons. “Take out a 12-ounce ladle for the chili,” Lao says. As long as a server isn’t heavy handed, and the numbers match up, it should work out precisely.

These meals have been sources of nourishment for the disadvantaged, but also have provided other services to those in need.

Take Dennis Mitchell at the Las Vegas Rescue Mission, a lifelong cook who lost his way because of a meth addiction. As a resident of one of the rescue mission’s programs, he works in the kitchen, putting his skills back to use. “It’s great working under Chong because of all the experience he has,” Mitchell says.

Catholic Charities

Both the rescue mission and Catholic Charities help train interested residents and teach them about the culinary industry. Their time at the nonprofits might vary, but Chong says some should be equipped with skills that can help them find employment.

Like clockwork, the countdown ends, the meal begins, and the chefs must start the process all over again. After the 30-minute lunch rush, Chong grabs two of the remaining drumsticks and a scoop of rice and comes out to the dining hall to eat with some of the people. After his rush, Lao strolls into his dining room, as well. “Hey chef,” one of the regulars says.

When the meal is over, Lao says, the number of empty plates will let him know whether it was a good meal — as will the trash. “My trash is going to be light today,” he says. “It was simple, but it looks like they enjoyed it.” 

 

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