Mojo marinated chicken thighs, adorned with a pineapple relish, make the kitchen at the Miami Rescue Mission smell like Noche Buena.
In a way, it’s Christmas in February. Chefs hired by the South Beach Wine & Food Festival meld with the regular kitchen staff at Miami’s homeless outreach nonprofit in Wynwood, some of them former residents here, some of them still recovering from addiction or domestic violence and an unexpected life on the street.
Together they move in a choreographed dance, around and in between deep fryers and burners, as they prepare dazzling meals on compartmentalized black Styrofoam plates: mojo chicken next to Cuban-style black beans and rice, a hearty green salad, and for dessert, a banana pudding topped with tropical fruits such as succulent in-season pink grapefruit that turns the bowl into a Jackson Pollock.
Food is scooped onto dishes, and dinner is served to more than 700 men and women for whom this might be the day’s only meal.
The food here is always hearty, though admittedly basic. But this weekend, they’re being fed by foodies. With the usual venue, the Miami Beach Convention Center, undergoing renovation, the festival partnered with the Miami Rescue Mission to use a multipurpose space that usually serves as everything from a prayer hall to a classroom as the prep area for the dozens of chefs who came from around the country to prepare meals costing hundreds of dollars for the festival.
In return, the festival is cooking dinner for the mission’s long-term residents and the surrounding area’s homeless men and women. A staff of chefs and line cooks hired for this role is working with the mission’s cooks to prepare more than 3,500 meals over the festival’s five days.
“I would rather do this than any other event, ever again,” said Tannie Permission, a Miami native and chef for the national company Centerplate, who helped design the weekend’s menus. Her voice cracks as she remembers her first night on the line, serving plates to Miami’s hungry and often homeless. “You can feel it. You can feel the love.”
The festival has always donated 10,000-20,000 pounds of food prepared but not served during the South Beach Wine & Food events for the past 16 years. That’s thanks to a 1996 federal “Good Samaritan” law that allows restaurants and vendors to donate food in good faith.
But this year, it went a step further.
To understand why, you needed only step outside the mission’s kitchen, look along the building, and see the line of Miami’s homeless men and women queuing up toward the cafeteria on this week’s wet Wednesday. They hugged the walls to try to stay dry as the rain ebbed and flowed from drizzle to downpour.
Inside, shift leader Ronald Greene directs traffic as the mission staff mans the serving line, handing plates to residents and neighborhood men and women out the door. Greene knows what this meal means — because he was once one of them.
“I’ve been through what they’re going through. so I feel great about being able to give back,” he said. “It’s the human thing to do.”
Just across the alley, behind the mission’s cafeteria, some of the country’s top chefs are prepping ingredients for pricey South Beach Wine & Food events.
Iron Chef Morimoto’s chefs from his Napa Valley restaurant prepared the ingredients for the celebrity chef’s entry in the $350-a-person Burger Bash in the mission’s multipurpose room.
The 2,000-square-foot space has been transformed. Plastic wrap covers the industrial carpeted floor of the room where residents conducted mock job interviews. Two rows of plastic tables stretch 25 feet, where chefs, today from New York, Chicago and San Francisco, prep for the big events alongside Morimoto’s assistants. Last week, this is where bible study was held.
Rows of Badia spices, from cumin and dried rosemary to curry and powdered garlic, are stacked in towers in the same place where the mission had its podium for visiting inspirational speakers. In the adjacent parking lot, a pair of portable 350-square-foot coolers kept their food cold.
Such was the makeover that some chefs had no idea they were at a rescue mission. And they preferred it to prepping at the Miami Beach Convention Center in past years.
“They should keep it here,” marketing manager Liz Rosen said as she brought lunch [Cuban sandwiches from Wynwood’s Enriquetta’s] for her chef, Mike Price, who owns two New York City restaurants, as he filleted snapper for a crudo dish for Thursday’s Italian Bites on the Beach event. “It’s all about feeding people and taking care of each other.”
The chefs were more than prepping. They were getting an education about food waste.
A couple chefs admitted they didn’t know about the federal law that protected restaurants against lawsuits if someone gets sick after they donate food in good faith. Florida went further, writing a statute protecting food donors giving to charitable organizations from civil and criminal liability.
Cooking at the mission only drove home the point.
Chef Jennifer Puccio, who co-owns three restaurants in San Francisco, had fresh hamachi fish flown in from the West Coast that she and her staff were trimming for a dish the next day. She learned any portion that isn’t served will be donated to the mission and be food for Miami’s homeless the following day.
“I think it’s ingenious,” Puccio said. “It’s wonderful, it really is.”
Those donations add up big-time.
After every event, the mission sends refrigerated trucks to the major South Beach event sites. They bring the food back here, to massive coolers where they keep food fresh to use in their kitchens and to send to smaller soup kitchens.
Last year, they received 17,000 pounds of food from the festival — including 20 drums of fry oil, paper plates and spices.
After last year’s Burger Bash, which draws as many as 8,000 attendees, the staff received a donation of nearly 8,000 pounds of some of the highest quality ground beef, short ribs and a host of other meats.
That doesn’t include an enormous burger-shaped cake that TV’s “Cake Boss” Buddy Valastro made for Burger Bash.
“It was so much we needed a forklift to move it,” said Mitch Haller, a one-time resident who stayed on to become the mission’s food services coordinator.
The mission fed Miami’s homeless their own burger bash the next day with a slice of cake — and froze the meat to use for several weeks in lasagna and beefaroni. After Friday’s Burger Bash, burgers again are on the menu.
“The next night, these guys are eating the best burgers money can buy,” Haller said.
And there’s variety. Dozens of unopened Barilla pasta boxes. Asian sauces from the Lucky Chopsticks event. All of it will reappear at the mission in a different form.
“The mission runs on food,” Haller said. “We can do so, so much with the food.”
All you have to do is see what is happening at the cafeteria just outside their doors.
The regular mission chefs, Raul Rodriguez and his assistant, James Walker, cook alongside the festival’s chefs. Walker is still a resident here, working his way through the program, with his sights set on landing a job in a restaurant such as Wynwood Kitchen & Bar, which hires “graduates” of the Miami Rescue Mission programs.
“It’s exciting because I’m learning so many new recipes watching them, learning something new,” said Walker, who learned a new orange glaze while working with the festival chefs.
“The kitchen is an art space,” Rodriguez added. “So you learn from each other.”
They looked out into the cafeteria, where a hush had fallen over the room. Some 200 men and women warmed up and dried out from the rain over expertly cooked meals from the unlikeliest of places.
“When I look at these guys and everyone’s quiet?” Rodriquez says, smiling. “I know the food’s good.”