At Martha's Table, cooking for a cause

By Candy Sagon
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 17, 2010; E01

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."

After graduation in 1997, he joined the Marine Corps Reserve (to his parents' dismay), which turned out to be one of the best things that could have happened to him. "My father couldn't believe the change between who I was the day before boot camp and who I was the day after it ended. I was a totally different person," he says.

The Marines, he says, not only "totally kicked my butt"; they also taught him management skills and helped him set goals and focus his energy. They also instilled in him "a strong sense of service to the community," something he discovered a traditional restaurant job didn't give him.

After completing his Marine Corps training, Recachinas went to culinary school in Seattle, worked in Chicago, then took time off to travel around the world, taking cooking classes in places such as Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and China.

He moved back to the District and enrolled at George Mason University, cramming a four-year program in government and international politics (with a minor in Chinese studies) into two years. His first year at Martha's Table was tough, he says. "There was a steep learning curve. I was trying to understand what we did and my role in it." There were the donors, clients, volunteers and staff to deal with, and he had to improve the menus and oversee the cooking. And unlike in his restaurant jobs, he couldn't just call a supplier and order the ingredients he needed. If he wanted fresh, local food, he had to find donors.

So he got creative. He reached out to the farmers at the 14th and U Street and Georgetown farmers markets. He also linked up with such local organizations as D.C. Central Kitchen, Miriam's Kitchen and the Mid-Atlantic Gleaning Network to find donated fresh ingredients. Through the Capital Area Food Bank and Clagett Farm in Upper Marlboro, for example, he was able to get 700 pounds of organic produce. And he got involved in celebrity chef events such as the recent Sunday Night Sips, where well-known local chefs hosted cocktail parties to raise funds for Martha's Table and D.C. Central Kitchen.

He also worked with corporate donors. Every week Chipotle provides Martha's Table with 300 pounds of chicken, beef and vegetables, and the Capital Grille in Chevy Chase sends 200 pounds of meat and trimmings for the soup that is served nightly to 800 to 1,000 homeless people.

Another part of his learning curve: getting used to having 75 percent of the work done by volunteers. Although he does have three experienced cooks on staff -- Louise Thomas, Lakisha Williams and Twanda Thomas -- having to rely heavily on volunteers "makes for a different dynamic from food service," he says.

On a recent morning, three volunteers were chopping fresh red bell peppers and grating carrots for the pasta salad. When that was done, they began chopping more vegetables for that night's soup. A school group of 6-year-olds had come in earlier to peel the oranges for the fruit salad.

One of the best things Recachinas has done for the adult volunteers, several of them say, was to make sure they have sharp knives. "The knives were always dull, and it made it so hard to cut the vegetables," says longtime volunteer Barbara Basler of Washington. Knives are now sharpened monthly, a seemingly small change that means volunteers can work faster with fewer accidents as they chop ingredients such as sweet potatoes.

Larger changes, however, come more slowly, notes Recachinas, particularly now as companies are tightening their donations even as demand for the charity's services has dramatically increased. Buss, the charity's president, says demand for emergency groceries -- bags of canned and nonperishable foods -- has tripled in recent months, and record numbers of people are showing up needing assistance.

Recachinas is trying to eliminate high-fructose corn syrup and canned food from the children's meals, substituting fresh or frozen fruit and vegetables. "If we have to use canned fruit, I prefer canned in juice instead of syrup," he adds. He's also restricted by regulations that require him to carefully track every ingredient he uses. "I spend a lot of time on government paperwork," he says, pointing to two shelves packed with thick binders containing the rules he must follow.

Lately, he has been working six, sometimes seven days a week, trying to keep up with everything that needs to be done. For relaxation, he volunteers as a diver at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, where (no big surprise) he feeds the rays and fishes.

"Sometimes I feel stretched thin, but that's just the nature of nonprofits. Everyone's stretched thin," he says. "Besides, the amount of work and stress is more warranted here than in a restaurant kitchen. Here, if I screw up, someone doesn't eat."


Martha's Table Meatloaf

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