From posh chef to soup kitchen star

Spir­i­tual awak­en­ing led An­sorge to take his magic to the Sal­va­tion Army

The Washington Times Daily - - Television - BY JEFF BAENEN

JST. PAUL, MINN. eff An­sorge once com­manded a staff of 17 and made around $80,000 a year as ex­ec­u­tive chef at a posh down­town Min­neapo­lis restau­rant where a 24-ounce dry aged Porter­house steak goes for $48. But he gave it all up to be­come the head cook of a Sal­va­tion Army soup kitchen, where the meals are free.

Now he brings his culi­nary skills to bear mak­ing salmon, ribs and stews for the poor and home­less who come to the Sal­va­tion Army Eastside Corps Com­mu­nity Center in St. Paul. For the Thanks­giv­ing meal that’s be­ing served Wed­nes­day, Mr. An­sorge planned a tra­di­tional feast of tur­key with stuff­ing, mashed pota­toes and gravy, cran­berry sauce and rolls, served on ta­bles cov­ered with white table­cloths.

“It is not your old-fash­ioned soup kitchen where you get a bowl of soup and a piece of bread and sent on your way. He makes phe­nom­e­nal meals that you would pay quite a bit of money to go to a restau­rant and have,” Sal­va­tion Army Capt. John Joyner said of Mr. An­sorge, who left the Cap­i­tal Grille to run the soup kitchen. The clients agree. “This is out­stand­ing. On a scale of 1 to 10, I give him an 8-and-a-half, yep,” Don­nie Richard­son, 55, a home­less man from St. Paul, said over a meal of chicken thighs, rice and mixed veg­eta­bles in the center’s white-walled gym­na­sium.

Mr. An­sorge, 40, says a spir­i­tual awak­en­ing led him to his new job at the soup kitchen in Oc­to­ber 2012, mak­ing just one-third of his pre­vi­ous salary.

“I went through a di­vorce. I was suf­fer­ing from ma­jor de­pres­sion for four years. And my pri­or­i­ties were all wrong,” Mr. An­sorge re­called while stand­ing near the center’s pantry shelves. “I wanted the high-pay­ing job. I wanted the big house. I wanted the cars. I wanted all that. And ul­ti­mately, none of that sat­is­fied me.”

Mr. An­sorge started cook­ing when he was 16 at a mom-and-pop restau­rant. He went to school in Rhode Is­land, earn­ing de­grees in culi­nary arts and food ser­vice man­age­ment be­fore join­ing the Cap­i­tal Grille, where he spent 12 years.

Now Mr. An­sorge is lucky to get as many as three vol­un­teers to help him in the soup kitchen. On a re­cent Thurs­day, Mr. An­sorge — a trim man with short gray hair — set up the ta­bles, sea­soned, seared and baked the chicken thighs, dished up meals and wiped down the ta­bles af­ter­ward. In­stead of a tra­di­tional white chef’s hat and uni­form, he wears a dark blue T-shirt with the words “SHIELD CREW” in white with the red Sal­va­tion Army in­signia, and blue jeans.

Raised Catholic, Mr. An­sorge — a for­mer al­tar boy — said he drifted away from his faith in his 20s and 30s. De­spite his prom­i­nent po­si­tion at the restau­rant, Mr. An­sorge said he was spi­ral­ing down­ward.

“My pri­or­i­ties were back­wards. I had a big mort­gage, I had car pay­ments, I had credit card debts,” Mr. An­sorge said. “And now I have none of that.”

He sent about 10 ap­pli­ca­tions to mainly Chris­tian non­prof­its, hop­ing to make a change. He chose the Sal­va­tion Army be­cause “it’s a non­profit that works with peo­ple that need help.”

Mr. Joyner said The Sal­va­tion Army ini­tially felt Mr. An­sorge was overqual­i­fied. But none of the other can­di­dates seemed a good fit.

“His cre­den­tials are un­be­liev­able. He could eas­ily be mak­ing two, three times what he makes work­ing for us. But he told us that he wanted to give back and he re­ally wanted to do this,” Mr. Joyner said.

Su­san Dunlop, chef and co-owner of Joan’s in the Park restau­rant in St. Paul, worked with Mr. An­sorge for nearly three years at the Cap­i­tal Grille. She says she’s not sur­prised by his de­ci­sion.

“That’s his true pas­sion. He wanted to do some­thing where he was giv­ing back to the com­mu­nity,” Ms. Dunlop said. “It’s who he is. He needs to do that to be happy.”

Mr. An­sorge didn’t just bring cook­ing skills. Mr. Joyner said Mr. An­sorge’s shop­ping skills save the or­ga­ni­za­tion money.

Mr. An­sorge said he looks for bar­gains on food near­ing its ex­pi­ra­tion date that gro­cery stores don’t want to sell but has been frozen and is sal­vage­able. The Sal­va­tion Army also has a part­ner­ship with the Sec­ond Har­vest Heart­land food bank that al­lows it to get 40-pound cases of mixed poul­try for $5, he said.

Be­fore Mr. An­sorge came to the soup kitchen, the Sal­va­tion Army spent $28,000 on its lunch pro­gram at the East Side center. In Mr. An­sorge’s first year there, he spent $13,000 on the lunch pro­gram. The center serves from 80 to 140 peo­ple each day at its Mon­day through Fri­day noon meal.

Mr. An­sorge also tries to bring nutritional value to what­ever meal he serves. For some, it may be their only meal of the day.

He’s elim­i­nated desserts and cut back on the fat and sug­ars in meals.

“I don’t want to feed them any­thing that I wouldn’t eat,” he said. “I try to feed them some­thing that I would feed to my own fam­ily.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Chef Jeff An­sorge serves up lunch at the Sal­va­tion Army Eastside Corps Com­mu­nity Center in St. Paul, Minn. Mr. An­sorge, who was ex­ec­u­tive chief at a posh down­town Min­neapo­lis restau­rant, gave it all up. “My pri­or­i­ties were back­wards. I had a big mort­gage, I had car pay­ments, I had credit card debts,” Mr. An­sorge said. “And now I have none of that.”

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