People Are Awesome: A “Chopped” Champion Lends His Culinary Skills To Give Others A Second Chance
Nearly half of his students—many of them homeless—get hired after taking his culinary program
Photo by Jean Trinh
We’ve relaunched a GOOD online series, “People Are Awesome,” where we feature good people doing great things—and seek their advice, inspiration, and ideas. This week, we talk to D. Brandon Walker, a chef who is giving back through culinary training.
On any given day, you might find Chef D. Brandon Walker whipping up gourmet dishes like steak adobo, crepes, or house-made onion rings stuffed with steak. But what makes these beautifully plated meals extra special is that they’re not being served at a fine-dining restaurant; instead, they’re placed in front of homeless individuals at the Bread and Roses Café in Venice, California.
Walker has been the executive chef of the sit-down restaurant run by the St. Joseph’s Center for the last decade. At Bread and Roses, volunteer waiters serve guests free meals at tables covered with tablecloths and vases filled with fresh flowers. The cafe also serves as a training ground for future chefs enrolled in the center’s Culinary Training Program (CTP), something that is run by Walker as well.
The program accepts students with varied backgrounds—including people who are homeless, fighting addiction, formerly incarcerated, youths in the foster system, and veterans—and puts them through a 10-week course that includes externships at some of Los Angeles’ hottest restaurants.
“I would say 50 percent of them get hired at the externship placement,” Walker says. “If they don’t [get] or choose not to be hired there, then we’ll go ahead and do a job search with them until they’re working.” Walker, who is a “Chopped” champion and runs Commis Catering company, is currently in the process of opening his own restaurant called The Mar Vista this fall with one of his CTP graduates, Jorge Rivas (former executive chef at Blue Plate Oysterette). Walker plans on hiring CTP externs at his eatery, and also donating excess food and supplies to Bread and Roses.
“Honestly, when I got [to Bread and Roses], I said, ‘I’m going to do two years and I’ll move on,” Walker says. “But it was so rewarding [so I stayed]. I never had to question whether or not I was making a difference.” Walker was able to take a break from his busy schedule at the center to share with GOOD what inspires him the most.
Who is your hero?
My mom. My mom raised me and my brother the majority of the time as a single parent after my dad passed away when I was 9. So now being full grown and having my own family, I can appreciate how amazingly hard that must have been for her. To keep two boys on track and keep us out of jail was pretty amazing.
What book most inspired you?
James Baldwin's Another Country. It reminds me to wake up and embrace the future. He is an amazing storyteller; I try to tell stories with my food!
What’s been the most inspiring news story from the last month?
I was really inspired by the Simone Manuel story coming out of the Olympics, [with her being] the first African-American to ever win an individual medal in swimming. That was huge to me. And maybe a future headline that hasn’t happened yet that I’m really hoping to see: “Trump Loses.”
What is a piece of advice you’d like to share with the world?
No matter where you’re at or what you’re doing, make sure that you’re part of the solution and not part of the problem. Be part of the solution. Be mindful of that. Look at whatever you’re doing and say, “Am I part of the solution or am I part of the problem?” I think that’s a good personal inventory.
What’s the best advice you’ve received?
Specifically as a chef, Thomas Keller [of French Laundry and Per Se] told me to make sure to sharpen my knives, to have really sharp knives, and that’s been an excellent piece of advice.
What’s the worst advice you’ve received?
I hope that it’s not to open a restaurant. I hope I’m not sitting here a year from now and saying that was definitely the worst decision.
What’s the last thing that made you laugh out loud?
My kids. My youngest daughter—the six year old—she’s insane. She was just doing a funny dance this morning. She’s the comedian.
If you could be anywhere else in the world right now, where would it be?
I would be at Rock Quarry, Kauai. That’s my favorite beach. . . .[There’s] this dirt road that goes down to this ridiculous beach that has this big lagoon inlet, a point where the waves break left. And I’m a goofy foot (in surfing), so I love that and the lagoon is amazing. The kids can kind of chill out by the lagoon.
What gives you hope?
My students. I’ve seen so many of them surprise me and overcome humungous obstacles in their lives. So, it puts it all in perspective. If they can do it, that’s pretty awesome.