The chefs behind the soup kitchens

By Evelyn Cook, Pilot staff writer February 23, 2011 05:00 am

Roger Gilbert, left, and Ernie Madden prepare meals for soup kitchen. The Pilot/Evelyn Cook
There’s a story in the Bible about a rich young man who asks Jesus what he has to do to gain eternal life.

Jesus tells him to obey the commandments. The man says he already does that, and wants to know if there’s anything else.

“Go,” Jesus says, “sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you’ll have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

The young man went away sad, the story concludes, because he had great wealth and didn’t want to give it up.

A modern version of the tale, with a different ending, had a role in bringing about Brookings’ two, free-lunch venues, a free medical clinic and a free catering service, plus an organic community garden that’s still in the planning stage.

“The Lord called me in 2005,” Chef Roger Gilbert said, “and told me to liquidate everything. I sold my house, all my property, my cars – and gave most of the money away, except for $2,000.”

He used the $2,000, he said, to relocate from Sacramento to Brookings five years ago. He gave up the restaurant he owned, bailed out of his real-estate career, and turned his back on the high-maintenance, stressful, materialistic lifestyle he’d lived for years. He now subsists on Social Security and food stamps.

“I just want to follow Jesus. My mission statement is simple: feed the hungry, cure the sick, give hope to the hopeless,” Gilbert said.

With the help of his business partner and good friend, Ernest Madden, he established the clinic and lunch program at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church. He cooks for that program as well as for the one Madden started at the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

“It’s gourmet food, and it’s for the whole community – anyone who wants to come is welcome, anyone who’s hungry,” he said.

Because there has been such a tremendous outpouring of support for the kitchens through donations of food and money, Gilbert said he and Madden were inspired to show their gratitude to the residents of Brookings and Harbor by providing a catering service that prepares and delivers gourmet meals, free of charge, to community organizations.

They’re calling the new service “2 Chefs Catering,” he said.

“I’ve always wanted to do something for other people without expecting anything  in return,” Madden said.

Madden, who did restaurant work most of his life, is now retired.

“But I still work at the port as a hoist operator for Pacific Choice Seafoods,” he said. “That’s how I met Father Bernie of St. Timothy's, 12 years ago. I unloaded his fishing boat and complimented him on having a crew that didn’t curse like sailors.”

Madden, who’s originally from Philadelphia, is married and has two kids from a  previous marriage, he told the Pilot. He said he has never been a full chef, but worked many years as a prep cook.

“I started as a dishwasher, then learned from the prep cooks and worked my way up,” he said.

“I worked for gourmet French and Italian restaurants in Bellingham, Wash.,” he said, as well as for other establishments over the years.

He has been doing restaurant work since 1960 or ’61, and is a Vietnam veteran.

“I came to Brookings in 1994 and met Roger a few years ago through a mutual friend.”

Roger Gilbert is from Boston. There, in 1960, at the age of 18, he started watching Julia Child’s cooking show on TV. Soon, he began trying out the recipes in her cookbook, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”

“I watched her show religiously. I’d cook the dishes she was teaching, and lo and behold, they came out pretty good. But some failed, so I wrote her a letter, asking for some tips.”

Much to Gilbert’s surprise, the woman who famously popularized French cooking in America gave him a call.

“We chatted, and she asked me over to her house to have tea,” Gilbert said.

“I went to see her, we had tea, and then we cooked together in her kitchen for four hours straight, nonstop.

“We cooked our hearts out, and she invited me to dinner. A few days later, she called and asked me to help on her cooking show.”

Gilbert worked behind the scenes as Child’s prep cook, learning all he could about French cooking.

“Julia was my mentor. I did the prepping and she did the finishing. I learned how to finish from her. I loved her. She was wonderful.”

Child recommended him for a job at a French restaurant in Florida.

“I had a great time there in my prime,” he said, “cooking and chasing women, until Uncle Sam called in 1964, when I was 21.”

Gilbert saw combat in Vietnam, and mustered out in San Francisco, where he worked for 12 years at a French restaurant, thanks to a recommendation from Child.

He said he was married and helped raise three children, and is now single, which he says gives him more time to indulge his passion for cooking and ministry.

“I love cooking. I love feeding people. I love people,” he said.

Madden said Gilbert feeds most of the people in the apartment complex where he lives. Gilbert’s front door is always open so friends and neighbors can wander in whenever they feel like it. When they do, they usually get fed.

Gilbert said it’s amazing how the community has gotten behind what he and Madden are doing. So much food has been donated, he said, it’s a full-time job trying to give it all away. He has a fully-stocked refrigerator outside on his front porch posted with a sign that invites people to help themselves to the contents.

“I put it out there so they can take whatever they want, whenever they want, without having to ask,” he said.

The pantry and closets in his home are stuffed with donated canned food because he doesn’t have anywhere else to store it. As fast as he gives it away, more arrives.

Gilbert and Madden are planning an organic community garden. They’ve lined up a location, and some volunteer master gardeners have agreed to teach organic gardening there.