On the Line: Bill Bracken of Bracken's Kitchen

I had the pleasure of meeting Bill Bracken a couple of years ago over a different culinary project. While his business doesn't fall under a traditional restaurant model, its purpose is a story that needs to be shared. 

Let's discuss your culinary background. How did you get started?
Kind of hard to remember. It has been so long. I guess I'm getting old. My first memories of cooking were when my mother went back to work, and I was left home alone during the summers. While I had three older sisters, I was left mostly to my own devices. Growing up in farm country with our family garden, we had very little processed or convenience foods in our home. My parents grew, cut, canned and froze everything. My dad worked in a meat packing plant, so even the meat we ate was butchered, cut and ground at home and frozen until needed. My grandmother had a root cellar where we kept the potatoes, apples and such in storage during the winter.

Those were back in the days of glass soda bottles (pop  bottles where I came from) and they were worth a nickel each. I would hop on my bike and ride around  town looking for discards. Five of them gave me a quarter, and with that I could buy a can of Chef Boyardee Spaghettio's, something my mother would NEVER have at home. With 35-cents, I could get a Swanson's TV dinner. And that was where my cooking started. Obviously, I graduated to cooking real food. My first job was when I was 12 at a small family-owned restaurant in Wathena, Kansas, an hour outside of Kansas City. I always loved cooking, and working in a kitchen sure beat de-tasseling corn in the fields of Kansas.

After high school, I spent two years at a local vocational school. Through a national cooking competition, I won a scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. At that time, I had never heard of the CIA, but figured if this was going to be my career, I guess I should go. What I really wanted was the second place prize, a set of Dexter Russel knives. Thank goodness that girl didn't switch with me.

After graduating, I was blessed to land a job with Four Seasons Hotels and end up in Dallas, Texas. I spent a year there before transferring to California. After several years at the former Four Seasons in Newport Beach, I moved to Beverly Hills where I was appointed to Executive Chef.

I guess you just asked how I got started. Sorry . . . 

I heard you are known for your mac 'n cheese recipe. What's the secret?
Like any good dish, it really is the combination of ingredients that makes it great. But the Taleggio cheese (a wonderful, creamy Italian cow's milk cheese) really makes it special. I only use a specific brand that is so creamy, good and consistent. And, of course, a touch of truffle doesn't hurt.

Best advice for the home cook.
Don't be afraid to experiment and try different things. It's just food.

Let's discuss Bracken's Kitchen. What's the difference between what you do and other non-profits feeding communities?

There are a lot of great organizations out there doing a lot of good. But when I decided to start Bracken's Kitchen, I knew then that we had to break the mold of the warehouse model of feeding that America has known for decades. Many of the people who are struggling not only lack access to good food, but a kitchen to cook it and the knowledge of how to cook a tasty and nutritious meal at home.

Having worked in luxury hotels for the past 30 years, I wanted to cook and serve the same quality of food for those people who are struggling and in need. At the end of the day, we are running a catering kitchen that is no different than the hotel kitchens that I have led over the years. The only difference is our guests do not have the means to pay for their food.

This isn't the first time we've talked shop. What dessert business did we meet about previously?
Ahh, yes. Those warm, gooey buns from the Philippines. I just had some two weeks ago. The Ensaymada Project, which I believe you kind of liked. No, it was a sad day when I turned over the reigns of that business to my partners, Ramon and Chari Reyes, but I knew I needed to focus on Bracken's Kitchen full time. They are doing great, are really growing and Chari has added a lot of exciting new flavors.

How did you meet your wife, Molly?
She literally walked into my life on May 7, 2003 as I was sitting in the office of the Managing Director at the Peninsula Beverly Hills. She joined the hotel and came to work a couple of months later. And you know how that story ends.

You're making breakfast; what are you having?
Wow. I love a really good huevos rancheros with some chorizo. But I guess I would take us back to my roots and make buttermilk biscuits and sausage gravy. And to keep my fitness coach and wife healthy, we would throw in something like fresh berries, our own house made granola and Greek yogurt to start.

You come from a culinary background where a food budget sometimes had no boundaries, to spending 50-cents (or less) on a nourishing meal. How do you manage to pull it off?

I was just on cnn.com, and the headlines were:

  • Collateral Damage in Syria
  • Olympic Swimmers Lied About Robbery
  • Shootings in Chicago

And on and on and on.

We live in a world that is so focused on the negative and troubles of others.

The world is really full of a lot of good people who really care; you just have to want to see it. We are blessed to have the love and support of some wonderful organizations like Newport Meat Company, LA Specialty, Orange County Produce, Whole Foods Market, etc. With the help of these wonderful organizations, we have been able to almost match the average cost of a meal from a food bank here in America. We have come a long way from our $2 per person meals that we started with two years ago.

Give me an example of a meal you put together based on food donations.
Last night's dinners were lemon pepper grilled, boneless skinless chicken thighs, brown basmati rice with cilantro and lime, freshly steamed vegetables, avocado and tomato salad and rocky road bread pudding, a rare dessert treat. 

Last thing you looked up online.
Tahoe. After three long years, we are finally taking a small family vacation and a little time off. Just a little, though. I have people to feed.

What's your favorite childhood memory?
My favorite memories always involve food. Those hot, summer Saturday afternoons on the patio cleaning corn, snapping beans and hulling peas were something I hated then, but will cherish forever. I so, so, so wish that every young child in America could experience that and understand the relationship between real, fresh food and our health and well-being.

Where do you call home these days?
I now reside in Fountain Valley, when Betsy and I are not roaming the streets.

Who's Betsy?
(Laughs) The other woman in my life. Betsy is a grand ole lady, otherwise known as a 30-year old Chevy Box Truck or our kitchen on wheels. She came to us as a donation from Bruce Hecker of Bruce's Catering in LA. And she was the first truck he purchased when he started his business. I never really knew where or how he came up with the name, but we liked it and kept it and decided the world would know who she is.

Hardest life lesson you've learned:
I love the quote, “I am just becoming more me than I have ever been.” Success always comes with a price and no amount of fame, fortune or success is worth it if you compromise who you are or what you believe in. Don't lose yourself in your quest for success.

You've mentioned the phrase “Time, Talent and Treasure”. How does that tie into Bracken's Kitchen?
We welcome the time, talent and treasure of those who choose to support us. We all have varying levels of all three, and we need and welcome them all to grow and prosper. Some people have lots of talent that they can support us with, be it talent in the kitchen or website design. Others may have lots of time on their hands and can come out and help us feed, and others may not have as much time to give us, but we have been blessed with financial success and can share their treasure. Usually it's a balance between all three.

From your years in kitchens like the Peninsula Hotel to now, can you tell me how you've changed as a chef?
Wow. That's a big question. I think it is directly tied into how I have changed and grown as a person and man. When I became the Executive Chef of the Peninsula Beverly Hills, the Food Network was brand new, and the attention that chefs were getting was growing. I still remember a quote from Michael Roux, or maybe his brother, Albert, the first chefs to win three Michelin Stars in the UK. “A young chef coming out of culinary school, armed with a squirt bottle and the latest issue of Art Culinaire, is a danger to our profession.” was how I remember his quote. While I didn't necessarily agree with it, it spoke to our rapidly changing profession.

Suddenly, chefs were rock stars. Even the most grounded person cannot help but get caught up in the hype of it all. When Paul Haggis (famous for writing and directing the movies Crash and Million Dollar Baby) wrote me into a cameo scene as “Me” with Tony Danza in the tv show Family Law, I really thought I was something.

However, along the way I certainly became grounded. Food is a very powerful thing, as evidenced by our obsession with it and its presence all across the social media world. However, I now look at it much differently. In life, as humans we all share two of the most basic needs for survival: the need to breathe and the need to eat. The problem is, air is free and food is not.

It is that notion that has changed me most. I no longer look at food as an avenue to fame, fortune and success. I now look at it as a basic human need, and the role I can play in helping to provide to those who need it most. And not one of those TV dinners, but a real high-quality meal. After all, when did a nutritious meal become a luxury in America?

Where do you see Bracken's Kitchen five years down the line?
Five trucks here in Orange County that we balance our time between compassionate feeding and “Catering for a Cause”. Our production kitchen will be a constant flurry of activity supporting other hunger relief organizations. And in the middle of it all are the students we are training and offering a path out of poverty. 

Oh, and we will have our second location, possibly even third up and running. LA, which may be centrally located and shared with the OC is next, then San Diego and then the Phoenix area. 

How do you receive/accept food donations for Bracken's Kitchen?
Our model is to provide a freshly prepared, tasty and nutritious meal. So we focus on foods that support that. We try to stay away from anything that is canned or processed. And if we do use it, it is of the Whole Foods Market quality. If someone wants to support us they can reach us via email ch**@br*************.com or phone (949) 445-3585 to make arrangements.

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