Chef Kristoffer Landroche stood near the kitchen, ready to welcome the regular lunch crowd. Prep cooks were putting out the day's specials, which included a freshly made mushroom soup in beef broth, grilled chicken salad with walnut aioli and a maple-glazed apple bread pudding.
The noon guests began filing in, and Landroche, a former U.S. Marine with a booming voice, greeted them. Then he barked, "Eat and leave everybody, we need the seats!"
It wasn't your typical restaurant attempt to turn tables, but this wasn't your typical restaurant. It was another meal at House of Charity in Minneapolis, and Landroche, formerly a chef at Kincaid's and the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, needed to feed 300 people in an hour.
Not long ago, Landroche was serving filet mignon to swells at the upscale steak house. Then one day he caught on fire in a boating accident, burned 70 percent of his body, and spent time at the Hennepin County Medical Center. From his hospital bed, he could see people lining up outside House of Charity on 7th Street and Park Avenue.
When Landroche recovered, he went back to Kincaid's, "but I quickly realized I couldn't be on my feet for 16 hours," he said. "So I came here because I could offer something back to people and keep my skills sharp."
He now teams with David Schulman, a caterer who was known to work big parties in the western suburbs. Together, they are trying to bring fresh, healthful meals to those who need them. So, like the chefs on Food Channel competitions who have to concoct meals from whatever is dumped on them, Landroche and Schulman take in truckloads of donations from stores such as Lunds and Byerly's and plan their menu for the week.
They use only fresh, whole chickens, and there is salad and milk every day. The biggest challenge is more than any celebrity chef has had to face: Their goal is to do it all for 36 cents per meal.
Changing the culture
"When we got here, the meals were beans and weenies out of cans and mac and cheese," Landroche said. "Our idea is to take it from being a soup kitchen and making it into a community dining place." It hasn't been easy. A lot of poor people have gotten used to processed foods. Landroche and Schulman have had to sell them instead on the idea of blackened tilapia, Caesar salads, potatoes Lyonnaise. They had to explain words such as aioli and demi-glace.
"It was quite a challenge starting over, changing the culture," Schulman said. "The culture we have now is one of grace, gratitude and respect. In the beginning it was really difficult to get them to try things. It was, what's this crap? If you didn't put gravy on it, they wouldn't touch it. They learned to trust us."
So they went from corn dogs and Tater Tots to, one day last week, smoked tuna on sun-dried tomato focaccia. The day's guests were mostly men, but there were also a few women and children for lunch. There used to be fights and arguments, but Landroche and Schulman insist on a tight ship. Landroche said he has had to carry a couple of people out.
'No swearing, no fights'
"I want families and children to want to be here and feel safe," he said. "No cursing, no swearing, no fights. If you want it your way, Burger King is down the block. If you are meek, they run over you."
The chefs try to get all the nutritional needs into one meal "because this may be the only meal a lot of them have," said Landroche. "Word has gotten around. People come to me and say, 'This is almost gourmet food; I couldn't afford this.' People have told me this is the best part of their day."
Landroche and Schulman have even bigger ambitions. They want to put a garden on the roof to grow their own herbs and vegetables, and they are considering creating a catering business that employs the people who come for free meals. Landroche stood by the door as most people gave him thumbs up as they filed out.
But one regular critic had to weigh in. Terry Mack introduced himself as "food editor of the Tramp Tribune."
I asked Mack what he thought of the change.
"Well, they have different names for the food now," he deadpanned, looking at my large meal. "It's impressive. Did he know you were coming?"
Landroche, shaking his head, said: "He critiques me every day. Terry gave me the best advice when I got here: 'Just remember you are one bad decision from eating lunch with me every day.'"
Just then a man who calls Landroche "the Soup Nazi" walked by and blew him an elaborate kiss. "Everything you do, you are the best," the man said.
Another man nodded to Landroche as he left. "God bless you," he said.
I asked Landroche if anyone ever told him that at the MGM Grand?
"Never," he said.
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