Skid Row's Union Rescue Mission, the largest private homeless shelter in the nation, began in 1891 as a small-scale effort to help the city's impoverished. According to mission lore, the phrase "falling off the wagon" originated there, a reference to the days when an actual wagon would ride around the streets of downtown, picking up wayward drunks. Today the mission operates in a 225,000-square-foot facility on San Pedro Street and can shelter up to 1,000 people per night. All of those bodies require a lot of food — about 2,500 meals per day, every day. That's where chefs Delilah Cannon and Anquinetta Hubbard enter the picture.
Cannon, 23, came to the mission from the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu and a short career catering for movies and television; 31-year-old Hubbard entered the world of professional cooking later in life and came to the mission directly from Wolfgang Puck corporate catering. Cannon and Hubbard decided to eschew the allure of Hollywood and prestige of celebrity chefdom, respectively, to work miracles on a daily basis, with tiny budgets and sometimes underwhelming ingredients. They are typically the only women in the kitchen; the staffs they oversee are composed of men who are mission residents going through the rehabilitation program.
Cannon is the most senior chef at URM — she's been there about three years. She plans the menus and budgets for the week's meals. "I had never been to Skid Row," she says. "I lived in L.A. my whole life and I'd never been there." In late 2011, she had just finished catering a string of high-profile movie premieres, including Harry Potter and Twilight films, and had a job at Universal Studios. "I wasn't happy," she says. Leaving that gig for the mission "changed my whole outlook on life. The people here are my family, and I'm so happy to not be doing fine dining. I quit Universal and now I'm on Skid Row!"
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Hubbard, originally from Louisville, Kentucky, began working at the mission in October 2013. She quickly made an impression with her dishes, one of which was a kind of riff on jambalaya. It was spicy and a little sweet; the meat, though institutional, was tender and well-prepared. Her long black hair has a green streak through it, and perched atop her head one recent evening was a small black hat. She looked a bit like Slash, i.e., fairly badass.
"I was a little rebellious in my 20s," Hubbard says. She has a blue belt in kickboxing. She has always loved to cook, but found working in corporate catering for a grueling culture that left her unfulfilled. "You're expected to take a lot of verbal abuse," she says.
After taking a part-time position at the mission, Hubbard gradually transitioned to full-time. The work environment is less abrasive; it also doesn't hurt that her position pays better and provides better benefits. "I feel like my blessings come more from feeding the homeless," she says. "And I feel more appreciated here."