At Martha's Table, cooking for a cause

By Candy Sagon
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 17, 2010

You think the Energizer Bunny has unflagging energy? He's a lazy snail compared with Demetrios Recachinas. In fact, next to the hyperkinetic food program manager at Martha's Table, just about everyone else seems to be moving in slo-mo.

Recachinas is a former restaurant chef who, two years ago, went from cooking lobster at one of the city's top eateries to chopping donated vegetables at the downtown charity that helps feed and educate hungry people.

Since he was hired in 2008, he has transformed the meals for children, teens, seniors and the homeless. More of the food is now being made from scratch, and Recachinas -- or Demetri, as everyone calls him -- has increased the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables, including more locally grown and organic produce from area farms. Thanks to advice from Sam Kass, the White House assistant chef, he has also started a small container garden in a sunny rear area where he and volunteers grew vegetables, herbs and flowers last summer.

With his shaved head and lean physique, Recachinas looks like he was built for speed. He talks like it, too, his words as boundless and energetic as his movements as he zips between his small office, the kitchen, the back loading dock and the brightly painted classrooms where 250 children and teens come for preschool and after-school programs.

On this morning, volunteers are preparing lunch for the children: turkey wraps, pasta salad with fresh vegetables, fresh fruit salad. Recachinas is working on recipes for a month's worth of menus so that staffers and volunteers can prepare meals to his specifications even when he's not there. On the list: barbecued boneless, skinless chicken thighs with brown rice and green beans; chicken and vegetables over penne pasta with marinara; beef tacos with red beans and rice; baked pollock with roasted carrots and brown rice.

"I eat what the kids eat," he says. "If I won't eat it, I don't serve it."

He was only 27 when he got a phone call a few days before Christmas 2007 from Lindsey Buss, the chief executive and president of Martha's Table. At the time, Recachinas was sous-chef at Buck's Fishing and Camping under then-head chef Carole Greenwood. "I was blanching lobster when he called and said he wanted to talk to me," Recachinas recalls. "I had no idea of what Martha's Table did."

Two weeks later, on New Year's Day, he started his new job.

Buss says he hired the young chef because he wanted someone with "energy, a wide range of practical skills, and the creativity and determination to get things done despite a lot of roadblocks."

The organization was also re-examining its approach to hunger nutrition, Buss says, and needed someone with "real food experience." Recachinas, who had graduated from culinary school and had been working in restaurants and food service since he was in high school, seemed like the perfect match.

For Recachinas, it was exactly the job he didn't know he needed. "I really owe this to Carole," he says of Greenwood. "She realized I was looking for something else, that I didn't feel fulfilled." Greenwood connected him with Robert Egger, founder of the nonprofit D.C. Central Kitchen, who recommended him to Martha's Table, "even though she knew it would mean I would ultimately leave Buck's."

Much of Recachinas's life has been spent seeking a place that could contain his seemingly inexhaustible energy. A D.C. native who grew up in Maryland, he says he was hyperactive as a child, unable to focus, frequently getting into trouble by the time he was in Thomas S. Wootton High School. Despite that, he worked throughout high school in the kitchen of Shady Grove Hospital because "I liked the work, and it paid well."

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