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Meet Bill Bracken of Bracken’s Kitchen in Orange County

Today we’d like to introduce you to Bill Bracken.

Bill, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I had no idea. Literally no idea, about the impact that my decision to create and start Bracken’s Kitchen would have on so many people. I guess there is a lot of people walking through life wondering if there isn’t something more. Something more meaningful, something more heart felt or just something more that they should be doing. “What is the meaning of life?” is a question that has been asked for generations. After all, deep inside of every one of us is a longing and desire to know that in some small way, it has made a difference that we have lived.

People often ask me about the decision I made to walk away from a successful career as a semi-celebrity chef to feed the homeless and less fortunate. I certainly couldn’t have chosen a new career path with more of a contrast from my past life. I have gone from feeding celebrities, movie stars and presidents to feeding street people and the working poor in our communities and I have never been happier. God has truly blessed me through this.

While I know it is common and cool for sports stars to point up to God when the do something great on the field of play but in my case my story is pretty simple: God truly did for me what I couldn’t do for myself.

You see, I was always a slave to money. Not because I needed fancy things but because of the immense fear and insecurity in being able to provide for my family. I attribute this to the time in my childhood when my father’s company, ironically Seitz Foods, was on strike and he was not working. My bedroom was closest to the kitchen and I remember lying in bed at night while mom and dad sat at the kitchen table trying to figure out how they would get by. They worked so very hard to ensure that us kids had all that we needed and never went without but those times were very tough. There were lots of nights when dinner was a slice of white bread and some soup poured over the top, i.e: SOS, “Stuff On a Shingle”. 😊

I believe it was that time in my life that created this immense pressure to be able to earn a decent living and provide for my family that drove me. That and the desire to make my father proud of me. I am not sure how a country boy from a town of a little over 1,000 people ended up in Beverly Hills but I did. Along the way, I got caught up in the career rat race. After all, I lived in Southern California and worked in Beverly Hills and Newport Beach for more than 25 years. What you wear, what you drive, where you dine and who you hang out with was the world I worked in. A world driven by success which was defined by the size of your bank account. Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with success and wealth, but when the drive and desire to achieve it blinds you to what is going on all around you, there is a problem.

I got caught up in that to some degree and lost my way. My focus on my own success and fear of providing for my own family caused me to have a blind eye and lack of compassion for those with so much less. That drive to succeed and make my  proud fueled me and that was my only priority.

It all started when I landed my first restaurant job as a dishwasher in a local diner – and by the age 13, I was where he was meant to be: in the kitchen cooking. After high school, I attended a small vocational school where I won a scholarship through a national cooking competition to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York. Following my graduation from CIA (with honors), I took a job at the Mandalay Four Seasons Hotel in Dallas, Texas. I later moved with the company to its Newport Beach property, now the Island Hotel, working my way up to Executive Sous Chef.

In 1994, I joined The Peninsula Beverly Hills as Executive Chef – overseeing all of the hotel’s culinary divisions, including the nationally acclaimed Belvedere Restaurant. During my tenure, The Belvedere was awarded the coveted AAA Five Diamond Award for 12 consecutive years. Additionally, I was voted “Chef of the Year” by the California Restaurant Writers Association and received rave reviews in publications such as Condé Nast Traveler, Bon Appétit, Food & Wine and Travel + Leisure.

Through my passion and creativity, I built a variety of successful food and beverage projects and programs. From being one of the first to introduce small plates in the form of “Small Bites Offerings” to the LA dining scene or my signature “Macaroni and Cheese,” elbow pasta with Taleggio cheese, crushed truffles and a parmesan tuile, I was on the forefront of the culinary movement.

After 10 years of running the kitchen, I stepped into the role of Executive Assistant Manager – “Food & Beverage” overseeing the entire food and beverage operation at The Peninsula Hotel. I enjoyed immersing myself in the service side as well as the world of wine and food pairings and took great joy in helping build the hotels award winning wine list.

In October of 2005, I joined the Island Hotel in Newport Beach. As Executive Chef, I headed up the property’s culinary operations, overseeing the new Palm Terrace Restaurant & Lounge and a staff of 65 cooks, pastry chefs and stewards. My first focus was on re-positioning the hotel’s signature restaurant, Palm Terrace, firmly on the culinary map. Previously known as Pavilion Restaurant, the Palm Terrace opened in June 2007 following an extensive refurbishment with a new tropical-themed décor and new menus that reflected my somewhat whimsical American-style cuisine.

After five years in the kitchen, I again took the reign of the entire F&B division, this time while still wearing my chef coat. I was tasked with creating a new business model to navigate through some very trying economic times. While doing so, I also created the culinary vision for the Oak Creek Golf Club’s food and beverage operation.

When our economy took a huge hit in 2008-2010, I watched a lot of really good people lose their jobs and struggle just to get by. And I mean really struggle. There were no jobs to be found. To see a grown man with a wife and 2 kids not be able to buy their child a Christmas present and barely put a meal on the table affected me. I knew then that I was being called to serve and help but didn’t know how and quite frankly was too afraid.

When I took over the F&B Division, I was tasked with unbelievable expectations and out of fear for my own financial survival put my head down and did what I was asked. I became detached and unfazed by the struggles of the people who worked for me. I was too worried about my own future to worry about theirs.

Then the unthinkable happened. At 48 years of age, I was fired for the first time ever. I was walked off the property and thrust into the lines of the unemployed. The fear, shock and dismay of being unemployed didn’t last long at all as I knew it was my calling. Losing my job that December was truly one of the biggest blessings in my life. I got to enjoy Christmas off with my family for the first time as an adult. I was invited and actually able to attend a New Year’s Eve party. I had never been to one of them before! I was always cooking. What a blessing.

While I struggled with many fears and emotions of being a 48-year old unemployed chef, I knew it was part of a bigger story. The real fear was that my profession is a young man’s game, and here I was, old and out of work. In spite of the stress of it all it was truly an immense rebirth of sorts. No longer was I a slave to corporate America; I was free. I highly recommend it to anyone caught in the corporate whirlpool.

Soon after my departure, I received many calls from people wanting to put me to work. Moving was out of the questions so I settled on a local project. While I truly wanted to focus on feeding the less fortunate, I again, got caught up in the money hustle with an investor who wanted to open a dozen restaurants. Needless to say, that project was a complete failure and there was no doubt then that, I really needed to figure this feeding the less fortunate thing out.

I worked on a concept and built a business plan around a restaurant that would give back. I worked on several consulting projects to pay the bills. My wife was a trooper through it all and worked hard to help keep our family above water, financially. When I lost my job, she was a stay at home mom and raising our 2-year old. God truly blessed me with her and her willingness to do whatever she had to in order to help me make this happen.

As I look back now, all of my early efforts and ideas had a common thread. I was desperately trying to hold onto that former life in luxury hospitality. Little did I know then, that deep inside it was my ego that was fueling this need. As I tried many different things, even starting a Filipino Pastry concept, the only thing that gained traction was Bracken’s Kitchen. Now I have to ask you: what does a country boy from Kansas know about Filipino pastries? Nothing, but I still tried.

When we finally landed on the concept that came to be known as Bracken’s Kitchen, I started the tedious work of getting our 501c3 status and building out the plan. We found out in the fall of 2013 that our application was approved and suddenly, we were a bonafide non-profit. I was knee-deep in a couple of consulting projects so Bracken’s Kitchen got moved to the back burner until early 2014.

It was in the fall of 2014, when I came to the hard realization that if I was ever going to make this thing work then I needed to focus on it full time. I think that was one of the hardest leaps of faith. To walk away from all sources of income to focus on this and not take a salary was scary but needed.

It was as if God was saying, “it’s about time.” It was only then that things started to fall into place. Betsy ended up on our doorstep in December of 2014 as a gift from Bruce Hecker of Bruce’s Catering and that one simple act forever changed our course. No longer was 2015 going to be a year to raise money to buy a truck. Suddenly we had one, and off we went! Our fist feeding event was at Voice of the Refugee even before we had Betsy and once we got her, we started feeding people and never looked back.

Bracken’s Kitchen looks vastly different today and we are excited about our future but, it all truly started when I made the big, hard and scary decision to just do it.

Today, we look ahead with great excitement and expectation as we strive to grow and expand our unique model of feeding the less fortunate. With our “Trio of Services”, our Food Truck Feeding Program, Recovered Food Program and Culinary Training Program we find ourselves with a unique and very different approach to serving and supporting the hungry and food insecure in our communities.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Having worked for 25 years in the luxury for profit world, created quite an adjustment for me when I decided to start a nonprofit business. While we have had many struggles over the past 5 years, I look back with awe at how blessed we have been. I believe strongly that everything happens for a reason and our path has unfolded just at it should.

We would not be where we are today had we not gone through these struggles. Regardless of those struggles, I have always been surrounded by some amazing companies and individuals who were in my corner. The teams at Chef’s Toys, LA Specialty and Newport Meat Company are just a few of those who have been there to support us every step of the way.

Surrounded by them, my family and an awesome board at Bracken’s Kitchen the struggles have been nothing more than opportunities to learn.

Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about Bracken’s Kitchen – what should we know?

There are two basic needs for survival that is universal to every human, the need to breathe and the need to eat. Air is free, food is not. At the heart of Bracken’s Kitchen is the belief that there is nothing on earth more powerful than food. It has the ability to truly change a person’s life in ways that are unimaginable.

Beyond being a necessity for survival, food is a universal force that brings people together in wonderfully positive ways. Food has become a powerful social tool in America today. We will tap into that power to create a program that unites people with their future.

Is there a characteristic or quality that you feel is essential to success?
A heart for others and true compassion for mankind and a deep and unyielding passion for the work we do.

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Getting in touch: VoyageLA is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

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