By Zan Romanoff
The sight of the team preparing salads for the Primetime Emmys Governors Ball dinner, the largest formal sit-down dinner in North America, resembled a laboratory more than it did a kitchen. On Sunday evening, some 250 cooks were working in the L.A. Convention Center’s heavily air-conditioned prep space, winding their way through rows of folding tables set end-to-end with 4,200 gleaming white plates.
A few hundred feet away, the Convention Center’s cavernous interior had been transformed into a backdrop fit for the Hollywood spectacular it was about to host: Gold cylinders hung from the ceiling made the room feel like the interior of an elaborate pipe organ. There were calla lilies on every table and champagne cocktails being mixed at the bars in every corner, plus a “winner’s circle” where Alec Baldwin and Nicole Kidman could have their names engraved onto their newly awarded Emmys.
But the kitchen was a kitchen — sober, modest, efficient. Each cook on the line was responsible for plating an individual element of the salad: placing tomatoes or plums or a few leaves of basil, scooping quinoa or drizzling vinaigrette. Last of all came Ernest Rich, wiping the plates, making sure there was not a grain of quinoa or a splash of oil out of place.
Most of the cooks working that night were regularly employed by Patina Restaurant Group, which has catered the ball for the last 22 years, or else came to the job through Patina’s on-call catering list.
Rich, however, was unusual: At 58, he’s new to the world of food service. In fact, he’s still relatively new to the world outside of prison, where he served 19 years for charges related to what he describes as “a gram of dope.” He went in in 1997, at the height of the three-strikes law, when Motorola was introducing the first flip phones; he emerged to drug-related sentence reduction legislation, a world of omnipresent iPhones.
“There’s a lot of things going on right now that makes it twice as hard for a person to get his life back on track,” Rich says, so he’s especially grateful for the nonprofit L.A. Kitchen, which trained him in the basics of food service work and connected him to his current job with Patina. Normally he’s in the kitchen at Rise Up Café, a site Patina manages out of the downtown California Endowment building, but today his plates would be going out to guests such as Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon.
L.A. Kitchen is the brainchild of an entrepreneur and philanthropist named Rober Egger. It runs a job training program for people interested in getting into the culinary world; classes, usually composed of about 20 people each, are about half young adults who have aged out of the foster care system and half older folks who are either formerly incarcerated or homeless and in need of job training and life-skills coaching. Rich graduated as a part of Class 9 in April; Class 12 had its first day of training last week.
L.A. Kitchen began collaborating with Patina early this year when Rise Up Café agreed to serve as an internship site for L.A. Kitchen students and prioritize hiring them after graduation. Collaborating on the Governors Ball was as a natural next step: 10 of the chefs on site on Sunday were L.A. Kitchen graduates.
It’s important to Egger that his cooks aren’t anyone’s charity case.
“That’s what I like, is that kind of surprise element of, you can’t tell, can you?” Egger says. “Guess which one of these men and women were in prison. You can’t.” They’re well-trained, with the same skill set as their professional peers. Joachim Splichal, Patina’s chef and founder, can attest to that: He was on hand Sunday to make sure everything — every single element of every single dish — was up to Patina’s standards.
The L.A. Kitchen cooks’ skills are thanks in part to the rigorous training provided by their chef instructor, Charlie Negrete, who worked at swank restaurants such as the Peninsula Beverly Hills and Bottega Louie before his father died, homeless and addicted to drugs, and inspired him to seek out more meaningful work in the culinary world.
“Chef Charlie, he’s, like, this is what you’re going to be expecting. I was just, like, yeah, yeah, OK, and then I got to the kitchen [and] it was, like: I know how to do this,” says Edgar Ulysses Flores, a baby-faced L.A. Kitchen grad, newly 30, who was also helping prep the Governors Ball. Flores spent 11 years in jail, beginning when he was 18; most of his adult life so far has passed behind bars.
Now, says Flores, “I can cook octopus with a sous vide. Shucking oysters, I learned how to do that. Speed, skill. Everything I know, I learned through them.”