Twenty years ago, David Thomas smoked about $1,000 worth of cocaine and was standing at a bus stop on Vernon and Vermont tweaking hard while his heart was beating a mile a minute. A bus stopped and the driver frantically waved Thomas into the vehicle, insisting he get in. Wide-eyed and nervous, Thomas refused, but the driver wouldn’t move on until he boarded. He finally stepped in and the driver took him to Broadway and stopped the bus.

“Just walk straight down this street,” the driver told Thomas. He continued down 5th Street toward Skid Row until he found himself at the massive green gates of the Los Angeles Mission. He has been sober ever since. It was a bus ride he will remember for the rest of his  life.

“A guy came out of those doors and said, ‘Hey man, you hungry?’”  Thomas, who is now the head chef of the mission’s kitchen program tells L.A. Weekly. “He said ‘just stay right there, I’m going to get you a plate of food.’ I asked him what kind of a place this was, and he said a rehabilitation place. I knew I needed to change my life. If I hadn’t come in here that day I’d be out there living in a tent right now. The L.A. Mission showed me a lot of love and hope that my life could be fixed if you follow certain guidelines. They told me to pick God first and when I did, everything started to fall into place.”

Thomas graduated from the mission’s Work Start rehab program in 1999 and went on to graduate from L.A. Trade Tech and became a certified chef. He met his wife in the program, and they have been married and sober for the last 20 years. He feeds about 1,600 people a day, preparing breakfast, lunch and dinner and creating a menu for each meal. There will be handmade meatloaf patties with vegetables, mashed potatoes and gravy for dinner, chorizo scrambled eggs with home-fried potatoes or overnight oats for breakfast, and a salad bar at lunchtime that would put Sizzler or Whole Foods to shame. No iceberg lettuce here, just mixed greens, and plenty of fresh vegetables like cauliflower and broccoli. For dinner, the King Taco and In-N-Out Burger trucks often pull up to help feed the needy in Thomas’ food hall.

Chef Dave Thomas in the mission kitchen (Danny Liao)

“My motto is if I wouldn’t serve it to my kids, I wouldn’t serve it to them,”  says the soft-spoken gentle giant who does all of his own shopping. “If my kids won’t eat it I won’t give it to a homeless person.”

The rainy holiday season is tough and keeps getting more demanding, according to Thomas. He made his cornbread from scratch, which went into the Thanksgiving stuffing. When it’s cold out, he puts comfort food on the table like hearty beef and potato stew with vegetables over rice. 

“I’m seeing so many younger people now than  20 years ago,” says Thomas who grew up at 69th and Vermont downtown. “The drugs are much more destructive now. Even when I was an addict in Kansas City, Missouri, I still got up every morning and went to work.  The drugs now won’t allow you to drag yourself into work. It’s the stuff inside these drugs that’s killing us. That’s where the mental illness comes from, it’s blowing their brains out.”

Thomas has carried on the student program that saved his life, training young chefs in his kitchen who go on to working in restaurants like the Cheesecake Factory. He himself could have moved on to his choice of kitchens for much better pay than his Skid Row kitchen, but realized it was his calling to help the disadvantaged change their lives. There’s hope and a meal on the other side of the heavy green gates.

“There’s no reason for me to go anywhere, God brought me here,” says Thomas. “That was the best ride I ever took. If I had to do it all over — I wouldn’t change a thing.”


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