Meet the MISFITs: Miriam's Kitchen / by Ann Yang

If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen. We sat down with chefs Emily Hagel and Ciji Wagner; Emily was the Director of Kitchen Operations at Miriam's Kitchen, and she passed off the torch to Ciji. Emily and Ciji confront homelessness and food waste by whipping up delicious meals. 

Can you describe your work at Miriam’s Kitchen?

Emily: I’ve been at Miriam’s for three years.  I started out as a Tuesday morning breakfast volunteer, for about a year and a half.  Finally, I kept hanging around enough that they said I could work here.  I am currently the Director of Kitchen Operations, soon to pass that title along to Ciji Wagner.

Ciji:  I’m Ciji.  I’ve been here for almost two years. I started as a part-time chef; I was told there wouldn’t be a full time position open for me when I started and then six weeks later I was offered a full time position.

Emily: We saw her and she was amazing so yes!

Ciji: I’ve been at Miriam’s for almost two years now and I love it.

Can you say more about your food backgrounds, how you came into the culinary world?

Ciji: I’ve wanted to be a chef since I was a little kid—I never said I wanted to be a princess or a ballerina, I said I wanted to be a chef. I’ve only ever had food jobs my whole life.  I decided to go to culinary school for baking and pastries so that’s what my degree is in.  Then about four years ago, I made the switch to mostly savory cooking.  I have a whole slew of different experiences so I’ve worked for restaurants, wedding cake decorators, wholesale pastry groups, I’ve done consulting, I work at a soup kitchen—a little bit of everything.

Emily: She’s amazing; she’s selling herself short. My background—I have a Bachelor’s degree in international studies, so it makes sense that I’m serving food for people who are experiencing homelessness—joke, joke.  I moved to D.C. about 12 years ago, I am from Chicago and I came here to do trade policy, international development, business development in Turkey and Higher Ed financing in Afghanistan.  I did that for about six years and then I realized that I didn’t like to do that and that I really wanted to cook and that all of my time that I was spending with friends, and reading, and experimenting in the kitchen was all tied to food. 

I decided to go to culinary school, and through culinary school I worked at two restaurants, a food truck, then I worked at another restaurant, then worked for a start-up company doing food concept things, and then about a year into that, I said hey Steve Bat, do you want to give me a job here at Miriam’s? I think this is what I want to do with the rest of my life, to feed people, and to create food for people who really appreciate it as nourishment for their soul and their body. So that’s my story!

Emily (L) and Ciji (R) prepare a meal.

Emily (L) and Ciji (R) prepare a meal.

How would you describe the mission of Miriam’s Kitchen in your own words?

Ciji: The overall mission is to end chronic homelessness in D.C.  We do that via the food, which gets the guests into the door. The idea is that if you build relationships, and we believe that building relationships happens with food, then people will trust you enough to get the help they need, the support they need to really make the ongoing changes they need to their life.

Emily: I think the way that we hold ourselves to an extremely high standard out of respect for the art of cooking but also out of the understanding that if we are preparing a meal that someone in a paying-customer kind of restaurant would want to pay for, we feel like we have succeeded.  So we want to make sure that while our food makes our guests feel safe and at home, in the way that they don’t always feel safe and don’t have a home, here at Miriam’s Kitchen we’re able to make people feel good about themselves and have some security and stability in their lives through that good meal.

In terms of the bar that we set for ourselves and for our volunteers, and the professionalism that we run this kitchen with, that sets us aside I think, we run a restaurant for people who don’t pay within the mission of ending chronic homelessness. Our high standard for food, food preparation and how we run our kitchen, speaks through the impact of our food and how we care for our guests.

"Our high standard for food, food preparation and how we run our kitchen, speaks through the impact of our food and how we care for our guests."

Something that I’ve really noticed here is that there is dignity in everything you do, you refer to your clients as guests, sometimes there is an expediter at the end of the line wiping the trays, and obviously as you just talked about there are really high culinary standards. Can you expand on how really amazing culinary standards and all of the little things really add up to set you guys apart?

Emily: Last year we served over 81,000 meals for just under 40,000 dollars. The way that we’re able to do that luckily is through donated produce and luckily the people that donate to us and the product that we are given is top-notch.  I think that’s because a lot of the food purveyors in the area and growers and distributors and vendors know that they can give us marrow and bones and keep that dignity and respect for the product and continue that in dignity and respect for our guests.  We know what to do with really weird stuff and high-end stuff and we are serving 150-175 people per meal so a little bit of foie gras can go a long way. So when we’re given those types of ingredients were able to make some pretty awesome things with them and that’s one way were able to keep those standards high from a culinary perspective because the ingredients we receive are so great.

Ciji: To take what Emily was saying earlier a little bit farther, we’re hyper-critical with those sources; if a restaurant or a customer wouldn’t pay for it we wouldn’t want to serve it. Also, likewise if you wouldn’t serve it to your friend or family we also won’t serve it.  It’s the idea that food is such an integral part of who we are as chefs that we would never compromise on those standards to the people we’re serving whether that’s the guests at Miriam’s Kitchen or the guests in our home, or if we are helping our friends who work in restaurants and are making the food there. 

It’s the same standard and quality no matter where we are because that’s who we are, and I think that that’s really important that that carries on to our guests and they understand that they can talk to us about everything and anything that has to do with the food and we’ll listen to them and as much as we can take their concerns into consideration.  We increased the number of Latin-inspired meals because we were getting feedback that we weren’t doing them as much as the guests wanted.  Even things like that, we find it really important to integrate the guests’ concerns into the menu planning.

Emily: It’s interesting, there’s an inverse relationship between access to food and the knowledge of food so most people would think, if you have much, you know much about food.  I think that here it’s quite the opposite.  There are guests that are food insecure, obviously, and there are some guests that only eat here at Miriam’s and it’s there only food source other than garbage.  You would think that our guests would just eat whatever they’re served.  It’s quite the opposite—when someone approaches the serving line, “Were those lentils cooked in chicken stock?” “Yeah actually, they were.”  “So they aren’t vegan?”

Ciji: Or, “What kind of cheese is in the grits?  If it’s goat cheese I don’t want it." 

"There’s an inverse relationship between access to food and the knowledge of food so most people would think, if you have much, you know much about food.  I think that here it’s quite the opposite." 

Emily: “Yeah, I don’t like soft cheeses” or “Is that pasteurized?” and we’re just like what? This is amazing! I remember when I had first started here, we had gotten couscous donated to us and someone was like, “What’s couscous?” and then someone turned around in the line and it was almost like a domino effect down the line for our meals, “Oh, well, it’s kind of like a grain, but not really, it’s kind of like pasta, but not really, it’s kind of you know, it’s known in Moroccan food, usually,” and they’re like, “oh yeah, that’s why there’s dried fruit in it, tajine” and you’re like “Yes! What is this? This is an amazing place.”  It’s as much education for our guests, as it is education for our volunteers. 

Another funny thing too, is kind of to that inverse relationship, that our volunteers have access to everything, we’re in a very affluent city, and a lot of our volunteers are not working hourly jobs, they’re in salaried jobs so they have the freedom to leave early from work to come volunteer to go in late in the morning—you would think that because they have a lot, they know a lot.  You’d be surprised the amount of times we’ve asked a volunteer to cut a cantaloupe, for example, and they go “Oh, I don’t eat fruit.”  And I’m thinking, “You don’t eat fruit? How do you not eat fruit?! You make 500,000 dollars a year, you could buy every weird fruit on the planet and you don’t even know how to cut a cantaloupe. Wow, this is eye opening.” So the dialogue across the serving line and the education for volunteers and guests is really awesome to watch.

Ciji: Well it’s interesting too because we have several guests who have worked in the food industry, so there are times where we can have a much more in-depth food conversation with the guests than with the volunteers.  There are volunteers who grew up in restaurants and whose parents owned restaurants so we do have the whole spectrum, but then we have people who have literally never held a knife before who are coming into volunteer.  You have that juxtaposed with folks who talk about the different kitchens they’ve worked in, what they did when they were working the sauté station. 

You said something really interesting about the relationship between knowledge about food and food access. Can you talk a little more about that in D.C., at Miriam’s Kitchen, and your personal philosophy about that?

 Ciji: As Emily was saying, just because you know about food, doesn’t mean that you have access to that food or vice versa. Many of our guests have come from different countries, or have worked in restaurants, so they know about foods that we’ve never heard of sometimes. Just because they’re here, or that they’re experiencing homelessness, doesn’t mean they don’t know about food.  That doesn’t mean that they don’t have food choices just like everybody else.  There are people that have allergies—just because they’re living on the streets doesn’t mean that their allergies go away. 

Emily: And people have preferences! We’re not going to make people who don’t like fish, eat fish. Choice is really big here.

Ciji:  It’s also kind of common knowledge around the city that there are farmer’s markets and there’s these other things available where people who are experiencing food insecurity can go and get free food items, but they also don’t know how to utilize them. 

Emily: Or even a place to cook them.

"Many of our guests have come from different countries, or have worked in restaurants, so they know about foods that we’ve never heard of sometimes. Just because they’re here, or that they’re experiencing homelessness, doesn’t mean they don’t know about food." 

Ciji: So there are times where we’ve heard from partners of ours that, “we’re going to have to throw out all of this kale because nobody wants it for free because they don’t know what to do with it.”  We know what to do with it, but there’s also that range of, just because you know what to do with it doesn’t mean you have a place to cook it.

Emily: In terms of my impression around town, it’s an awesome time to be in D.C. right now because things like food access and food recovery and food waste are top of everyone’s radar screen. What I see missing, is the logistics and the coordination of it all. Ciji, Taimen and I spend, oh gosh, four to six hours a week, in the van, picking up produce and another hour to hour and a half sorting it all.  I mean, it can be 24 hours of our week, at least or just about that. 18 to 24 hours of our week is spent picking up the food and sorting through it and composting what we can’t use, and figuring out how we’re going to utilize that product in our week.  If there was a different way for us to coordinate with other different organizations—and I know there’s a lot going on now, there’s apps being created for it, and different alert systems—but I think that the access for the food preparers like us as well as the distributors like other food pantries, that that is a place in the local food scene that could use a little more infrastructure and support.

It’s really interesting to hear how difficult it is to pick up the food because it’s all coming from different places and there’s an extraordinary amount of creativity that you have to apply in the kitchen.  Can you talk about the process of utilizing what would otherwise be food waste into your meals and how you put your culinary brain to use?

Ciji: So the way the process works is that we normally have a freezer full of proteins so Friday I’ll start thinking through what the menu is for next week and we’ll pull some proteins and I’ll have a rough idea of the flavor profiles to go with them.  It’s not until we glean from farmer’s markets over the weekend or Trader Joe’s on Tuesday at 11 that we really know what we’ll be working with for the whole week. So it really takes a lot of standing on your toes and looking at the twenty cases of spinach and being like great, we need to figure out what to do with this so we’re not just serving spinach salad for every meal.

Emily: This was a good week and five times this week we had to totally change course. Whether it was, the chicken wasn’t thawed or the turkeys that we ground needed to go because they were fresh and not frozen, so we needed to process those and remove the breasts and put them through the meat grinder, and roast the dark meat, put that into crepes in the morning, and use the white meat ground into turkey meatloaf, switch the chicken to later in the week because it wasn’t thawed for Monday. We had ten to fifteen cases of broccoli, twenty to thirty flats of mushrooms, twelve cases of power greens, so kale, spinach, and chard, donated.  We were going to do broccoli with cheese sauce but we can do greens on the side because that’s too much, so we switched that to later in the week—so that’s the process.

Ciji: At all points in time, our brains are just trying to sort through the stuff that we have and figure out other ways to use it.  So for instance we had 600 pounds of pumpkin donated three weeks ago, and we still have about 450 pounds of pumpkin to go. And we have 100 pounds of squash. So the other day I’m making dinner and I’m like we should just serve a big chunk of roasted pumpkin with brown sugar and butter instead of a sweet potato.  That’s normal that I’m randomly in my brain somewhere thinking because you kind of have to work that way.  There’s no time for us to just sit down for three hours and be like okay, so we’ve got the greens, we’ve got the broccoli, what are we doing with it? It’s more of like, okay we have this, this and this, let’s go with an Italian flavor profile and figure it out from there.  Or we’ll go with a German or Indian flavor profile.  We do very specific things with flavor profiles and make sure what we have makes sense, so we’re not going to do mashed potatoes with stir-fry.  It’s all going to be a coherent menu but it will make sense with what we’re getting in.

Emily: I think in terms of the use of product, it kills us to throw anything away.  If we have the stems of the mushrooms there, we make a mushroom stock. We would never throw away the stems because there’s so much flavor in there. Who knows? There’s ebbs and flows with how product comes in so there could be a week where we don’t have everything. And then we look at each other and we’re like well, what are we going to do? That’s why we try to get ahead and no tomato goes un-roasted, pureed or frozen. We want to make sure that we have enough reserves in the freezer of high quality pumpkin puree so we can do a pumpkin curry and we make our own tomato sauce in the peak summer time when we have 18 billion heirloom tomatoes that we roast and puree and put in the freezer so we can have a nice fresh, healthy, nutritious tomato puree on January 15th. 

"We make our own tomato sauce in the peak summer time when we have 18 billion heirloom tomatoes that we roast and puree and put in the freezer so we can have a nice fresh, healthy, nutritious tomato puree on January 15th." 

I think in terms of trying to figure out what to do with everything, we made 48 quarts of roasted mushrooms that are cooked down so just think of how many there were when they were raw. We want to use every bit of that—maybe a crust-less mushroom and cheese quiche, with some beautiful stinky fresh cheese? And then we’ll do a mushroom ragu or a wild rice, mushroom turkey soup, God knows we have a million turkeys still! And lord knows we cannot forget about the roasted pumpkin.

So yeah, it is so fun, and when you bring other professional chefs into this environment they geek out because there’s all this top quality local product and seasonal product that they can’t even necessarily purchase. I was telling someone last night, that a chef came in from the Hamilton and we had all of these beautiful eggplants that he’s never seen or can’t afford from a food cost standpoint and we’re getting top-notch, awesome things for free.

Ciji: And we’re desperately trying to get through them all, because we have so many. One of my favorites, I can’t remember which chef it was, but we had a chef that came in that was like, “where did you get this meat?” and I told him it was from the Huntsman who’s one of our partners, and he’s like, “that’s like 35 dollars a pound! We can’t afford to get this in.”

Emily: Yeah, we have 80 pounds in the freezer.

Ciji: And I’m like “Yeah this is the stuff we get,” and it just blew his mind. He could not fathom that that was the quality of stuff we were getting and not the stuff that is scrapped off the loading dock into a box. We’re getting the stuff that the restaurants don’t want because it was in the freezer for two weeks too long and it’s kind of freezer burnt, maybe-ish. So we get it, and it’s beautiful, and it’s perfect and it’s delicious, but a restaurant won’t pay 35 dollars a pound for it.

Emily: Or artisanal sausage that has too much pink salt in it, it’s kind of a weird color, over pink-ified.

Ciji: That’s what makes it exciting though.  I will try to plan out as much as I can on Friday afternoon and then Monday morning when I come in it’s like okay, so let’s actually figure this out now.