Chef on a Mission

April, 13, 2011

By Cheryl Rade
For The Register Guard
Appeared in print: Wednesday, April 13, 2011, page D1

* photo courtesy of The Register Guard

Clarence Martell is nothing short of a miracle worker. As chef at the Eugene Mission, he is responsible for running a kitchen that prepares more than 16,000 meals per month for the homeless. That’s quite a feat considering he has no culinary training, minimal funding and virtually no idea what food will come through his kitchen on any given day.

“It’s like a restaurant, but I’m relying on donations,” Martell says, explaining that the Mission’s food is acquired through many sources, including various local stores, restaurants, wholesalers and, of course, the public.

“We glean a lot of things,” he adds. “You ought to see the magic I can work with squash; and I make good Mexican food. It’s a real creative thing that goes on here.”

Formerly of Florence, the 56-year-old Martell wound up in Eugene in 2002 after his wife died of congestive heart failure.

“I had taken care of her for years, and when she passed away, it was all over,” he says. “I was homeless and living in my truck and then I ended up here at the Mission.”

Martell’s initial plan was to grab a quick shower and a hot meal, but he soon realized that he liked his new surroundings. Having a driver’s license allowed him to drive the newspaper trucks, as well as donation vans, but it wasn’t until three years ago that he found his true calling as the Mission’s chef.

“I’ve always been interested in cooking,” Martell says, adding that preparing food on such a large scale can sometimes be challenging. “There’s no cookbook that tells you how to cook for 300 people … and I can’t make menus, because I never know what food I’ll have.”

Cooking on the fly, however, is something Martell has come to enjoy.

“I’ll never know what I’ll have, so a lot of what I do is spur of the moment,” he says. “I really like it when we do a Mexican night. Today we’re cooking up a big pot of beans.”

As chef (his actual title is food service manager), Martell resides on the premises at 1542 W. First Ave., as do other members of his kitchen staff. Praising his staff’s efforts, he points to the gleaming stainless steel fixtures, as well as the freshly mopped floor and the spotless dining room tables.

“This place is clean and that’s because we respect where we’re at,” Martell says. “We all take pride in what we do. It’s not the Mission Hilton, but we provide good food.”

Gene Magness, a Mission truck driver, agrees.

“Clarence does a good job with all the food,” he says between mouthfuls of chicken and vegetables prepared by Martell and his crew write my essay for me uk. “Of course, chicken is my favorite anyway, but he can just come up with something and it will work out OK.”

Fred Bowers, who rides “shotgun” with one of the truck drivers, calls Martell an outstanding chef who works hard to put out tasty meals.

“What can I say? I think the food here is excellent.”

Another driver, Matthew Kennedy, says he is impressed by Martell’s ability to cook so well considering he never knows what food will be donated.

“His food is exceptional,” he says. “There’s always plenty of it and it’s always well prepared.”

Martell offers the three following recipes: Barbecued Chicken Rub, Cabbage and Potatoes and Zucchini Squash With Cheese.

Barbecued Chicken Rub
1 whole chicken
3 tablespoons coarse salt
3 tablespoons dark brown sugar, packed
3 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons ground black pepper
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin

Rinse chicken in cold water and pat dry; mount on a vertical poultry stand (Martell notes that Weber makes a good poultry roaster).
Mix together dry ingredients in a bowl. Rub dry mix on bird and then place in refrigerator while preparing the barbecue grill. It is recommended to put all the coals on one side of the grill and then rotate the bird as needed — once every 20 minutes for about 1 hour and 20 minutes.

Chicken is done when it reaches an internal temperature of 165-170 degrees.

Cabbage and Potatoes
1 head cabbage, sliced
3 leeks, sliced
Salt and pepper to taste
Vegetable oil
½ teaspoon roasted cumin (optional)
2 pounds Yukon gold potatoes, cooked and cut into small pieces
Chinese mustard (Martell recommends Beaver Hot Mustard)

In a large saucepan, saute cabbage, leeks, salt and pepper in a small amount of oil until cabbage wilts (about 5 minutes). Add cumin if desired. Combine cabbage mixture with cooked Yukon gold potatoes and mix well. Serve with mustard. Serves 4.

Zucchini Squash With Cheese
1 ounce bacon
3 scallions, sliced
2 medium tomatoes, diced
1 zucchini, cut into ¼-inch lengthwise strips
2 ounces Jack cheese, shredded
In a medium saucepan, saute bacon for a few minutes before adding scallions. Cook for a minute or two and then add tomatoes and zucchini strips. Cook until zucchini is tender, about 5 minutes or so. Remove from heat and stir in cheese.
Cheryl Rade is a freelance writer from Eugene.

Blessed are those who have regard for the weak; the LORD delivers them in times of trouble.
Psalm 41:1