Chef Bill Bracken

July 13, 2017

1. How did you first get interested in cooking?
I grew up in farm country in the Midwest where food was a way of life.  My mother and grandmothers were both great cooks. My father worked in a meat packing plant and brought home large piece of beef that he ground, cut and chopped to froze for later consumption. We always had our own garden and grew all of our own fruits and vegetables. From the root cellar where we stored potatoes, apples and root vegetables all winter long to my mother’s enormous canning operation, we had very little processed food in our home. I started cooking at home at a very early age and my two favorite items was goulash made with my mothers canned tomatoes and Nestles Toll House cookies. I still have that recipe committed to memory.

My first job was when I was 12 years in a small mom and pop restaurant in Wathena, Kansas.  While I loved cooking, I didn’t envision a career in the kitchen. This was just a job that kept me from having to work in the fields, de-tasseling corn or tossing bales of hay.
2. When did you first know that you wanted to be a chef?
I’m not sure of the time in my life when I really realized I wanted to be a chef because that was a foreign concept to me. Growing up in Kansas farm country the only chefs I knew was the "Galloping Gourmet" on TV and John Ritter’s character in "Three’s Company". Of course, there was James Beard and Julia Child on TV but neither of those was appealing to a young boy in Kansas.

However, it was my senior year in high school when I was a library aide, counselors aide and cafeteria aide because I had all the courses I needed to graduate and I knew I wasn’t going to college.  Sitting in the counselor’s office, one spring day, Ms. Miller said, “So Bill, your graduating in 3 months, what are your plans after that?”  It was like someone hit me over the head with a 2x4 and I panicked.  It was her who advised me that I had been working as a cook through high school and I could go to vocational school locally and take some culinary classes. It was that conversation that started my journey.  God only knows where I would have ended up if not for Ms. Miller.

3. Where did you go to culinary school?
I attended two years of school at N.E.K.A. Vocational Technical School right out of high school.  While there I won a scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.  After a year of working and saving my money I took off for New York.

4. After school, what kitchens did you cook in?
I went to work for Four Seasons Hotel in Las Colinas, Texas when I graduate from the CIA. I transferred with the company to Newport Beach where I worked for 7 years before I landed the position as Executive Chef at the Peninsula Beverly Hills.  My 12 years at the Peninsula were some of the most rewarding while at the same time most demanding and exhausting of my career.  From there I moved back to Newport Beach to work at the former Four Seasons Hotel as it was rebranded to the Island Hotel when the Irvine Company took over controls of the hotel the owned.  When I left the hotel world I worked with a couple of partners to help open DivBar in Newport Beach, started my own business, The Ensaymada Project, that my former partners are still running today.

While I was working on a starting Bracken’s Kitchen I did some consulting work to keep our family afloat.  Some of the projects I worked on included El Encanto Santa Barbara, The Inn at Perry Cabin in Maryland and PDM right here in Orange County.

5. How did Bracken’s Kitchen come about?
Wow, this could be a very long answer so I will try to keep it brief.  A big part of Bracken’s Kitchen came from me finding myself again after years of chasing fame and fortune.  Coming from a very small midwestern town I grew up in a place and more important, a time, when people took care of each other.  A place where people jumped at the chance to help a person in need.

I watched a lot of good people lose their job during the economic downturn of 2008-2011, and at a time when there weren’t any jobs out there.  It was hard to watch the toll that the economy had on friends of mine.  These were people, who on the outside, looked like well-off successful business people. But I knew the other side, struggling to make their rent and mortgage and trying to stay afloat.  To watch them struggle just to put a meal on the table had a profound impact on me.

Then fast forward to December 2011 and I found myself jobless and unemployed.  The difference was that I was ok financially.  I was always conservative with my money and with a god severance package I was in a much different place than so many others.  It was then I knew that I was being called to do something different with my skills, something much more meaningful.  From there I set out to figure out how I could help and Bracken’s Kitchen was born a little over a year later.

6. Is there anything like this in the country?
I cannot say for sure but it seems that we are one of, if not, the first ones to leverage a food truck to feed people in need.  Combined with our recovered food program and soon our culinary training program, I think we have a very unique approach to hunger relief.

7. What are some of your challenges?
Wow, that is a wide open question and I could go in a hundred different directions in answering it.  While my family and I still struggle from time to time, I think personally we have gotten over the huge impact this has had on us. Needless to say building a nonprofit organization from the ground up requires a lot of hard work and personal sacrifice but we have weathered the storm.

As for the kitchen I recently took the time to take a deep look at where we have come and where we are going.  In the process, I realized that my biggest mistake was moving too quickly to feed people. As 2014 was coming to an end we had our plans for 2015 with a major focus on raising funds to buy our first food truck.  But then in December of 2014 Betsy arrived on our door steps as a gift from Bruce’s Catering in LA.  Suddenly with money in the bank and a truck in our driveway we decided to start feeding people and haven’t stopped since.

While a lot of hurting people benefited we are still playing catch up to strengthen our foundation and put systems in place that should have been handled prior.  Nothing that we cannot overcome but challenges that we created ourselves.

8. What are you most proud of?
Without a doubt the relationships that we have built with people I never would have met without Bracken’s Kitchen. Poverty comes with a pretty big stigma and it’s easy to look down and judge people who are really hurting and struggling. A friend once told me that we are all guilty of making mistakes and the same poor decisions in life but some of us just pay more dearly for it. That is so true. I never would have imagined that I would not only feed but actually spend time with people living on the streets, and even call them friends. But it is those people who have touched my heart the most and shown nothing but genuine honesty, love and appreciation for our team.

9. What’s next on your to-do list?
Ha ha, it’s a pretty big list.  At the top is securing our kitchen production space for the next 5-7 years.  Be it our current space or a new place we need to ensure we are set with a kitchen that can not only accommodate our growth but house handle our trucks as we grow our fleet  Right beside that is getting our culinary/vocational training off the ground and get people into our kitchen to work.

10. Where do you see Bracken’s Kitchen in five years?
We will have a fleet of 5 trucks that are on the road constantly balancing their time between compassionate feeding and our Catering For A Cause program. The kitchen will be staffed by people who are part of our training program who are getting paid, on the job training. And finally our recovered food program will be in full swing in conjunctions with Chef’s To End Hunger and Waste Note OC. We will be repurposing an enormous amount of food and sending out 1000’s of meals in support of other nonprofit organizations.

11. Tell us about your private catering opportunities?
As I just mentioned “Catering For A Cause” is simply an income stream for us with all proceeds going back into our programs to feed those in need.  We have been very cautious in booking events at this time as we truly want to tie this into our culinary training program.  While we would entertain any client, our focus will be on supporting other nonprofits and organizations and agencies who focus on social enterprise and helping to make the world a better place.

12. What surprises you most about what you do?
The kindness and generosity of the people we serve.  I have become Uncle Bill to a generation of kids in Santa Ana and that is so very special.  When a family has so very little and relies on us for a meal but still finds a way to give us a gift, that says a lot.

13. What does a typical day look like for you?
I like to get my son, Luke, off to school so I have some guaranteed time with him, and then I’m off to our kitchen and offices in Huntington Beach.  I usually get the kitchen volunteers started, then move on to any meetings I have for the day.  If it’s a day we are feeding, Betsy needs to be ready to go by 3 p.m. so I have to return my focus to getting the food on the truck and ready to go. We usually feed for 60-90 minutes, after which I drive Betsy back to the kitchen to clean up and get home. The days can be long, but they are very rewarding.

14. Where do you get your inspiration?
I am a very passionate person and find deep meaning, focus and inspiration in all areas of my life. My passion for what I do has been my driving force for years, usually to a fault in years past.  Over the past 10 years however, I have reconnected with my faith and have been blessed to find a wonderful church home with a pastor who has an amazing way to take the truths from the bible and apply them to everyday life. Rarely a Sunday goes by that I do not leave church with a new or renewed focus for the week. Knowing that the work I now do is so much bigger than me keeps me moving forward.

15.  What do you do you to relax?
I am not very good and being still so the word “relax” has a different meaning for me. My dad taught me that if it’s broke, fix it. If you don’t know how, figure it out.  That said I spend a lot of time working around the house or in our yard with my wife.  I usually have 2-3 projects going on at any given time.  And even more than that is my little guy, Luke who at 7 years of age is very active with a lot of sports.  We are in our pool a “LOT” during the summer and spent a lot of time outdoors.  If there is nothing to do at the house we love to check out new places (food related or otherwise) in and around Orange County.

16. What is your dream day in OC?
Good question!  There are so many great things to do, but my family likes to ride our bikes to the beach, spend a couple of hours there, then come home to our backyard barbecue and fireplace for a good home-cooked meal and s’mores around the fire!  After all, we do live in the OC.

 17.  If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?
I love to create, so I would probably be doing something else with my hands, like woodwork. I love to repurpose old wood, and just build stuff!  My most recent creation is a backyard treehouse for my son, Luke.  And, of course, there’s the world of counseling that one embarks on when working in the kitchen.  It is not something they teach you in school but us chefs are a unique breed and like all creatives we come with a lot of baggage. Being a good listener and able to dispense kind and thoughtful advice is helpful.

 18.  What’s your most prized possession?
Had you asked me that question a few years ago it might have been my Harley Davidson VRod or my 1972 Dodge Demon.  But all of those are gone and my life has changed drastically. Possessions don’t mean so much to me anymore.  But there is one thing that has caused me much panic in the past when I thought I lost it and that’s my “Lucky Lego.” It has been in my pocked for more than 20 years. It was originally a single Lego given to me by my oldest son Jake when he was 2 but has since had another small piece (given to me by Luke) glued to it.  Not that long ago I was certain I lost it but when returning to the kitchen one night with Betsy I spotted it in the parking lot.  While it had been run over, I was overjoyed to find it. It has since had another small piece glued to the bottom to repair the crack from it getting run over.

19. What can’t you live without?
God, my family, peanut butter and chocolate.

20.  A secret most people don’t know about you?
Two of my favorite movies of all time are “Made of Honor” and “27 Dresses”. Yes I love a great chick flick.

Greer's OC
Blogger | Journalist

Since 1993, Greer has been writing about fashion, dining and trends in Orange County, as a popular columnist for the Los Angeles Time Community Newspapers (Daily Pilot, Coastline Pilot and HB Independent) and now as founder of Greer’s OC.

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