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Stuffed peppers and butternut squash soufflé. Beef barley risotto with roast duck. Braised beef cheeks and swiss chard gratin. On any given evening, the gourmet fare enjoyed by the homeless guests at Miriam’s Kitchen rivals the menus featured at any of the high-end restaurants where the charity’s three chefs once worked.
“Once in a while we get criticized for spoiling the homeless, but we’re really not costing anyone anything,” said chef Steve Badt, who came to Miriam’s Kitchen after burning out from eight years of work at trendy restaurants in Boston, New York and Washington.
Housed in a church basement just down the road from Capitol Hill and blocks away from the hotel once known as the Watergate, this nonprofit organization utilizes local donations from Trader Joe’s, Costco and other grocers and farmer’s markets — including greens from the White House garden tended by first lady Michelle Obama. Its partnerships with local game and seafood wholesalers also contribute heavily to the daily offerings on the menu.
“It can be like a show on the Food Network, and this happens in high-end restaurants in D.C., where you have two chefs saying, ‘My God, look at this incredible bounty from the farm, what are we going to do with it? Or this supply of partridge?'” Badt said. “It takes really experienced, great chefs to know what to do with it.”
Luckily, Miriam's Kitchen has three of them.
Chef Ciji Wagner is the newest, joining full time earlier this year and embracing a job she said has renewed her sense of purpose in work after putting in long, hard hours typical at most restaurants. “I always grew up with the idea of food bringing people together. And I didn’t see that happening in my career where I was,” she said.
But at Miriam’s Kitchen, she sees appreciation from the people she feeds. The meals she helps provide are part of “that first step to getting them back on their feet again,” she said.
Badt said the gourmet meals Miriam’s Kitchen serves help build up trust between the diners they call “guests” and the organization’s case workers on shift, typically five or six every night.
“This meal gets them to sit down like it’s home,” he said of the guests. “Then the case manager starts to build relationships with them.”
In the beginning, guests are asked about basic needs — toiletries or clothing. Later, it builds up to medical care, legal attention or even addiction counseling.
“Eventually it’s, ‘Can we find you an apartment? Can we find you a home?’ So this meal starts the process,” Badt said.
Before chef Emily Hagel came to Miriam’s Kitchen, she worked as an international development specialist in places like Afghanistan, Bahrain and Turkey. But she spent all of her free time cooking for friends and eventually decided to attend culinary school.
After working for restaurants and food trucks, she started volunteering and raising money for Miriam’s Kitchen. She now works as the organization’s director of kitchen operations, balancing proteins and complex grains on daily menus — as well as relationships with the group's numerous business partners, who help keep food costs down to 50 cents per meal.
“This is a dream job. It’s not an exaggeration,” Hagel said.
As for Badt, when he first arrived at Miriam’s Kitchen 14 years ago, the organization onle served breakfast, often featuring powdered eggs and canned fruits and vegetables. That distant memory fades easily with a quick look at recent menus, offering the likes of fresh fish tacos with avocado creme or braised chicken thighs with puttanesca sauce to nearly 180 guests each night.
Wagner said even when she was working at restaurants, she strived to do more than create meals.
“I knew the ultimate goal wasn’t just feeding people; the ultimate goal was this bigger picture of change,” she said.
Back then, “I was working really, really hard and really, really long hours and to what end?" she added. "I know to what end now."
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