“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?
PZ: About two years. Father Greg offered to me that he was going to look for money to open a café for the women.
S.I.: So was Homeboy Bakery already in operation?
P.Z.: The bakery burned down, and it was not open for a few years. I was waiting for Greg to come with the funds to open a café. I opened the first one. I opened the second one. Talking to him one day I said, “Here, I have a café.” And he said,” Here, I have women that need jobs.” So he sent people, and I became an employee. In my own place! So I transferred that whole operation to Homeboy.
S.I.: Had there been a program specifically targeted to women?
P.Z.: No, that was the first one.
S.I.: So you've been that advocate.
P.Z.: I was waiting for that opportunity. And since I was working with Greg during that terrible times of gang life in Boyle Heights, I think I understand what's going on, what's needed. Because I was working with women at Dolores Mission who were looking for venues for the kids. Greg said, “Tell me what you need, and I'll follow you.” All this comes from graduates in Dolores Mission, the idea of Homeboy, the idea that we have to take care of our kids that aren't being served. Greg was there and had open ears to try to solve that situation.
S.I.: So it was a combination of spontaneous ideas, and then careful planning?
P.Z.: It was somewhere in the middle.
S.I.: Some of your staff has been with you for a long time, right?
P.Z.: We have people rotating all the time. It is 18 months that they come and the first thing they have to do is work on themselves, to heal themselves, to prepare themselves, to get all the classes needed and mandated by the courts. After they are standing up on their own feet, they come to a business.
S.I.: What's been the biggest surprise since you started this?
P.Z.: It is a lot of work. It is challenging to work with rookies. That is why we have a few women who want to do this in the industry [as a career]. They are very good pillars for the café. I will not be here for the rest of my life. I will be passing the torch. Alisha is one of them, she went to Bouchon for a few months, and she chose to come back.
Mariana is a sous chef — tiny, soft-spoken — and she got it. She can run the kitchen by herself. It is one girl who came in little pieces, and many of the women see themselves in Alisha or Mariana. Who better to welcome new women than one of them? So it's a matter of making sure the café will be open for many years. I would love to see the women taking strong leadership positions and be ready, and lead this themselves. We need people to come with the technical knowledge, to keep us up to standards, and also a support team.
S.I.: What about the Homegirl gardens?
P.Z.: We have a couple of gardens. We don't have enough money, but we have the Dolores Mission front schoolyard. Those were built by the ladies on the team. We have another garden at Fourth and State that can produce a lot. We just planted basics because we are short on people. We planted Serrano peppers, basil and habanero peppers that are daily usage. We are not in the position to provide everything the café needs.
S.I.: Could you grow enough tomatoes to supply the restaurant?
P.Z.: We were able to supply the restaurant with enough spinach last year. One of the drinks is made with spinach, so a good amount of spinach was needed daily. We were able to supply all of the spinach and cilantro.
The garden was created with the intention of both [goals]: supply as much as we can, but also to be an extra opportunity to teach and train people, for our ladies to learn where food comes from. So Flaming Cheetos and Coke are not breakfast for your toddler. It happens. For them to discover where food comes from, and how simple and healthy it can be. It is 100% organic, also the garden on Fourth is raised beds, and the ladies learn how to make the beds and soil composition. To compost and everything. Dripping irrigation. We have a very smart system, that's on the clock, depending on the age of the plant and the season, so it's minimal water usage. We have a lot of kale. Right now it is chilies.
S.I.: Is the community welcome at the gardens? How do you manage that if you need some of the food for the restaurant?
P.Z.: At the Dolores Mission, the kids come and help. Especially the small kids, they have a lot of fun. At the Fourth and State garden, I planted herbs on the outside, around the house with native plants and with some herbs, so people can say, Let's go get mint for the meatballs. For the community to feel that they can go and get enough cilantro or rosemary for tonight. The tomatoes and basil are inside, behind the gate.
S.I.: So how did the relationship with Thomas Keller get started?
P.Z.: Thomas Keller has been very generous with us, to offer four months' training for a girl from the café and a guy from the bakery. At the same time, one and one go to Thomas Keller. It's through a common friend of Keller and us, and it's established as a program.
S.I.: He approached you, right?
P.Z.: Yes. He came to the café and Homeboy in general. This is the beginning. We are about to send another two people.
S.I.: How do you select them?
P.Z.: It's for people who want to be in the industry, who probably don't know who Thomas Keller is, but it's a huge opportunity.
S.I.: Are there skills and things in those kitchens you'd like them to bring back from Bouchon here?
P.Z.: No doubt. I can see that from Alisha. She learned differently. She comes with different ideas, or better ways to do things.
S.I.: About techniques?
P.Z.: In general. The way they do things on the line, at the prep table. They have a beautiful, pristine kitchen.
S.I.: What about in terms of the actual kitchen, or is the Homegirl style the Homegirl style?
P.Z.: I think our style is our own, but no doubt we can learn from them.
S.I.: So how would you describe the Homegirl Café style of cooking?
P.Z.: I think it's mainly to be simple as possible, since we have new people. That's why [we do] tacos. We can make part of the final plate. It is very simple because of that, few steps.
S.I.: What about the style of the food?
P.Z.: It's Mexican, Mexican flavors. But many people think it is not very Mexican! But I think it is. We are continuing [in the tradition of] Mexican flavors.
S.I.: What are the best ways you've been able to have your belief in healthy eating using the resources and budget you have?
P.Z.: It is always very simple food. Not over-fried. The only thing we fry every morning is the tortilla chips. The fryer is off the rest of the day.
S.I.: What kind of food in L.A has been an influence on you?
P.Z.: I was vegan for a few years.
S.I.: Before it was cool?
P.Z.: Yeah, before it was cool! My kids craved tofu. I think it is my own lifestyle. It was a family decision, understanding that it was good for us. It was all the way to making our own nut milks. Not even a piece of cheese or egg for a while. My youngest was born as a vegan. He didn't know what a candy was. He used to go to birthdays and come back with a bag of candy, and he thought it was toys. He would make lines of candy because of the colors. He didn't know he was supposed to open it and eat it!
S.I.: What does Father Greg order?
P.Z.: He likes meat. He likes potatoes. I think he orders the chile relleno grilled cheese sandwich. That's what I hear from the ladies. I'm pretty sure he loves carnitas. He's a great cook. From that Jesuit community, he's always excited about cooking on Sundays. They take turns on Sundays. When he's the cook, there will be seven different dishes. He's a great, great cook. He loves baking.
S.I.: Are there any restaurants in L.A. you really love?
P.Z.: I love taco stands. I love a chorizo taco from a little hole in the wall on First and Boyle — that place has been there for many, many years. It's a very simple chorizo taco. I love tacos on Seventh and Soto. There's a very good Mexican antojitos truck on First and Chicago. That's my neighborhood.
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