"Would you like to be a guinea pig?" chef Pati Zarate asks with an easy grin in the open kitchen at Homegirl Café. She then hands over a plate with a green bean-and-spinach egg-white omelet, served with a side of honey-drizzled grilled queso panela and a tomato mint salad. Given the host and the food, it's impossible to say no.
"I'm trying to bring healthier options," Zarate explains about this particularly virtuous, balanced breakfast. She's always trying to do something new at Homegirl Café, her passion project that's far more than just a restaurant.
In conjunction with the other entrepreneurial outlets run by Homeboy Industries, Homegirl Café is an essential building block of the program that continually defies expectations. The organization now has an remarkable track record of effectively working in equal partnership alongside disadvantaged youth and former gang members to turn their lives around. Homegirl Café, and the fully stocked Homeboy Bakery section, also happens to be a terrific breakfast and lunch spot on the eastern edge of Chinatown, just in the shadow of the elevated Gold Line tracks.
A trim figure with close-cropped gray hair, wearing stylish glasses, a checkered collared shirt and bright red clogs, Zarate is the mother hen figure. It's an obvious cliche but an apt description, since Zarate's nurturing and gentle manner is balanced by a no-nonsense, focused, get-stuff-done attitude that comes from years of working in the kitchen and blazing her own trail. The Guadalajara native has three grown kids of her own, all raised in Boyle Heights.
Even if it's up to homegirls to take care of the front of the house, that doesn't stop people from seeking Zarate out. "I just dropped in to see if you have a minute," says a middle-aged man who cautiously approaches her during an interview. "I was in the area with my son, and I had an idea." Zarate takes a break to hear him out.
Listening to people, and frequently ending sentences with a calm "yeah," just to make sure the other person is on board with her end of the conversation, is in part what's made Zarate so essential to Homeboy Industries. In addition to the Homegirl Café, Homeboy and Homegirl have outlets at LAX and at City Hall, and Homeboy Bakery is well known to shoppers at certain farmers markets around town.
The most recent food-oriented project to come out of the intersection of Alameda and Bruno Street is Zarate's cookbook, Hungry for Life, published a few weeks ago.
The lavishly illustrated, user-friendly paperback volume is sold at Homeboy's on-site gift shop and via its online store, with 100% of proceeds donated back to the cause. Read our interview below to learn more about Zarate's history, how she came to collaborate with the legendary Father Gregory Boyle, the new book and how some Homegirl and Homeboy employees are winding up in the kitchen at Bouchon in Beverly Hills with Thomas Keller.
Squid Ink: How did the cookbook come about?
Pati Zarate: We were thinking for the book to be a good tool for the café and for Homeboy. To bring attention and share that story. We ended up doing one story [of Alisha] only, but it pretty much reflects everybody's struggles. It was just to share the story and bring some recipes.
S.I.: Were those recipes that you've been making here all along, or did you develop some new ones?
P.Z.: It was a combination of both. Some of the recipes are traditional recipes.
S.I.: How much of the food here is your recipes, and how much is what the homegirls bring to it? How is it a collaboration?
P.Z.: Actually they are a very important part. Right now, the first people to taste the new recipes and the new items for the menu is them. They come back with feedback.
S.I.: You grew up cooking for a large family. Did you ever have any sort of formal training?
P.Z.: No. Not at all.
S.I.: Did you always love to cook or was it something that was a chore?
P.Z.: It was not a chore. I remember being in fourth grade and asking my mother to let me cook during the summer break. So it was pretty much a commitment that I wanted to work. That was the beginning. And going to the market daily, coming with a list of things my mother asked me to bring. But it was pretty much her telling me what to do, or the budget, and me buying it, coming back and cooking it.
S.I.: You would do that for the whole family? And once you started, you never stopped?
P.Z.: No. It was me wanting to cook in a very traditional, intact family. It was a good 15 people at the table daily, with meals at 2 o'clock. Probably not sitting at the table at the same time, but that was the beginning time. It was my older sisters, then 20 minutes later someone would be ready to move and leave that chair available. It was three meals a day. The main meal is between 2 o'clock and 4 o'clock, and dinner is pretty much a light meal, a snack after.
S.I.: So you would cook during the summers, and you went back to school, and your mom took over?
P.Z.: My mom took over, but it was not only the three months of summer break. It was through the year but more here and there.
S.I.: What was your first experience in a professional kitchen?
P.Z.: I actually started to do catering from my house. I was working with Father Greg, when he was a pastor at Dolores Mission.
S.I.: You were his assistant, right?
P.Z.: Yes, and also another Jesuit. So the superior in that community in Boyle Heights asked me if I could cook for them, and deliver the food to their house. And it was [as if] you cook the same as you cook for your family. I've always been on the healthy side. So he was asking me if I could do that. I was cooking a bigger meal and bringing a part of it to the Jesuits' house. So I was catering, and then I opened a very tiny restaurant in Boyle Heights, and then I bought another one, a little bit bigger, and the Homegirl Café started from that place.
S.I.: Was it all word-of-mouth?
P.Z.: Very much. I was doing quite a bit [of catering] in the Hollywood Hills, and Silver Lake. [Then] with the Dolores Mission community I put a class together to develop a business plan. A group of women and I put together a plan to develop a co-op. It didn't happen. I went to Little Tokyo Services Center because they had a co-op café on Central and First Street.
Then I opened a very tiny [restaurant]. I was serving very healthy food. Organic eggs in the heart of the barrio. I had Lucille Roybal and [outgoing mayor Antonio] Villaraigosa as my customers.
S.I.: Where would you get your ingredients from?
P.Z.: It was a very small operation, so I would be going for organic eggs to Whole Foods or Trader Joe's!
S.I.: How long did you have that place for?