It’s 8:30 a.m. on a Tuesday in the vast kitchen of the Union Rescue Mission at the heart of Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. The walls are lined with hundreds of donated cans of food. Bags of bread are piled up on the metal counters. A handful of volunteers are busy preparing the day’s lunch menu for the thousands of homeless people who will pass through the doors for a hot meal. Music is blaring in the background. In the middle of it all is chef Delilah Cannon.
At the age of 24, Cannon is already a veteran at the 125-year-old homeless shelter. For six years she has led the team of volunteers who pull together over one million meals every year. Her path to cooking for one of the country’s largest homeless populations came via training at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu and a stint catering to the culinary needs of Hollywood celebrities.
“I started doing Twilight premieres, Harry Potter premieres; I did the Grammys, I did the Oscars – I loved it. But there was no fun in it,” Cannon said.
Cannon’s resume fell into the hands of the Union Rescue Mission’s catering manager and he called her in.
“I was like, ‘come where? Skid Row? Where is that?’” Cannon said.
There was no proper interview, but Cannon’s skills were put to the test almost immediately, when she was asked to cut piles of onions and bell peppers.
“He’s asking me to cut this up for like 500 people and I’m thinking, ‘okay, mathematically how does this work,’” she said.
Soon after, Cannon was running the kitchen with a small team of rotating volunteers. Meals are served at breakfast, lunch and dinner and Cannon is in charge of deciding what goes on the menu.
“Today, we have salmon croquettes with sweet rice and corn for a little bit over a thousand people, so just a regular day,” she said.
Cooking for this many people is a production. There’s the chopping, there’s the mixing, there’s adding the flavors, and then there’s the actual cooking. As this happens, sounds burst from all corners of the kitchen; salmon patties sizzling, rice bubbling and dozens of eggs cracking. All the time, Cannon is watching the clock.
“We’re about an hour and a half from our serving time,” she said, “so this is where we’re going to have to speed it up.”
Lunch service begins at 11:30 a.m. As the first guests arrive in the echoing food hall, Delilah and all of the volunteers start to move fast. Steaming trays of rice, salmon patties and corn are swooped from the kitchen and placed in the super-sized food warmers. Servers plate the meals on a production line. A salmon croquette, a scoop of rice, a spoonful of corn, over and over a thousand times.
Chloe O’Neil from Seattle, Washington is volunteering at the Union Rescue Mission during her spring break.
“I thought it would be super cool to see this kind of community right in front of my eyes, and a little out of my comfort zone,” O’Neil said. “I didn’t want to just go home and have a chill week. I wanted to put my time to use.”
THE IMPORTANCE OF A GOOD MEAL
The meals are served in groups; first men studying at the Union Rescue Mission, then women and children followed by those not staying at the shelter, but in need of nutrition.
One of them is Ebony who is staying at the Union Rescue Mission with her six-year-old daughter.
“A friend of mine chose not to be a true friend, so I had to go. God led me here, but it’s a challenge.”
Ebony has mixed feelings about the food.
“Usually the food is okay. I’d rather be at home cooking my own meal, but it’ll fill you up, you won’t be hungry, so that’s the positive thing,” she said.
For Cannon, working in the kitchen of the Union Rescue Mission is about more than fancy menus or a paycheck.
“I spend so much time at this place, it’s become like my home, it’s just heartwarming,” Cannon said. “A plate of food goes a long way. I’d do it forever, just for that.”