Beneath the whirr of a 20-quart mixer, the sizzle of meat on the stovetop and the steady knock of knife blades on cutting boards, there’s a more subtle process going on in the mind of each cook at Miriam’s Kitchen: Let’s make this meal unforgettable.
It’s no simple mission. After nearly 30 years of serving gourmet food to D.C.’s homeless, this Northwest-based institution continues to experiment with its cuisine, drawing input from local chefs, volunteers and even the homeless.
But Miriam’s head chefs Steve Badt and John Murphy are up to the challenge, deftly navigating the city’s rapidly changing food scene and connecting with local merchants and farmers whose donations account for almost half of the food served at Miriam’s. The result? “The same quality you would have in any restaurant in the city tonight,” Murphy says.
This month, Badt, 45, and Murphy, 25, helped negotiate a partnership between Miriam’s and Northeast-based fish wholesaler ProFish, which will donate fresh fish to the kitchen every month. It’s a major step for Miriam’s, which until now mostly served canned fish, which is cheaper and has a longer shelf life. On Jan. 28, ProFish is hosting Snakeheads at the Harbor, a seafood benefit dinner at Washington Harbor. It has listed Miriam’s as a recipient of the proceeds.
Although Badt and Murphy sharpened their skills over the years at culinary schools and restaurants before joining Miriam’s, they say their current work requires a mind-set beyond what a formal education can teach. It’s the experience of a meal — “the language we all speak,” Murphy says — that is integral to creating a sense of community.
“What we’re providing is a tangible expression of compassion,” Badt adds.
It’s this aspiration to bring people together that has defined Miriam’s Kitchen’s efforts to combat homelessness since it opened in 1983. Since then, the organization has augmented its breakfast and dinner programs with creative writing workshops, arts and crafts, and yoga classes. It’s a therapeutic repertoire that the chefs agree pairs well with the meal program and helps take the sting out of homelessness. From there, in-house case workers can connect with visitors on a personal level, they say.
But whether they’re in need of a job, temporary housing or medical care, there’s a general consensus among the nearly 100 diners — or “guests” as they’re called — who file into the dining room on an average night.
This isn’t your average dinner.
“You can tell there’s a lot of effort put into it, a lot of love put into it,” Sylvia Randolph said between bites of her seared salmon-pesto sandwich. “There’s no way you’re getting a Miriam’s meal anywhere else.”
Three years ago, Randolph, 37, lost her job as a teacher. She now lives in a shelter near the Capitol. But coming to Miriam’s, she says, helps take the edge off.
“I could have their peanut butter and jelly all day, every day,” she says with a laugh. “It’s a wonderful thing.” And, she adds, “our chefs are the best.”
Devising and prepping each meal can be grueling work. Murphy says that even when he hangs up his chef’s whites for the day, he’s thinking about the next day’s meal. “Game planning,” as he calls it.
But the kitchen’s volunteer program, which includes more than 1,500 part-time cooks who work in shifts of eight to twelve people on a rotating basis, keeps energy levels high and takes some heat off of Badt and Murphy.
It’s also a way for the chefs to nurture an interest in cooking. Especially, they say, at a time when cooking culture is being glamorized on TV and in movies while the average American dinner might require little more than a microwave and fork.
“They’ll say, ‘I don’t cook,’ ” Badt says of new recruits. “And John will go, ‘Well, who cares if you don’t know how to cook. We’re going to teach you how. It’s not that hard to cook well.’ ”
Volunteers, Badt says, won’t just learn how to make a crepe or dice an onion. In his 11 years at Miriam’s, he’s seen solid friendships emerge from the program. He’s seen volunteers date and marry.
Having volunteered with Miriam’s for more than two years, Donald Harper, 32, says he looks forward to the words of thanks he receives from Miriam’s guests — “folks who don’t have to say thank you,” he says. And, having picked up a few dinner recipes, “I think my wife appreciates me being here,” he says. “So the brownie points don’t hurt.”
As the night wound down and guests polished off their whole-wheat blueberry and walnut muffins, something dawned on Murphy. “I kind of skipped lunch,” he admitted.
But maybe, he said, he’d just have a smoothie.
Miriam’s Kitchen is at 2401 Virginia Ave. in Northwest. To learn about the organization, meal schedules and the volunteer program, visit www.miriams