Chef Anthony Brunnemer tossed some roasted vegetables, rosemary and thyme together Thursday afternoon and poured a mustard seed and mango aioli on top.
It’s a dish that might be at home on any restaurant’s menu. Instead, it was part of that night’s gourmet meal for Kokomo’s hungry and homeless.
“Where do you get this kind of food at a rescue mission?” Brunnemer asked, as he stood at his stove.
The answer is right here in Kokomo.
The 46-year-old from Miami County once cooked for celebrities like Brad Paisley, Diamond Rio and Jimmy Buffet as executive chef at the Honeywell Center in Wabash.
But those people are “just another somebody” to him.
He much prefers the clientele he serves today as chef at the Kokomo Rescue Mission.
For many of the homeless and downtrodden people who pass through his kitchen daily, his food is the only warm, nutritious food they’ll eat all day.
“They come in cold and hungry,” he said. “They’re looking for that edge to get them through the rest of the day.”
They’re often surprised when they see what’s on the menu, the rescue mission’s executive director, Van Taylor, said.
It’s a soup kitchen. They think it’s going to be tomato soup and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Brunnemer, though, likes good food and variety.
He gives people at the mission a choice of four entrees and two side dishes every day. And every meal comes with a fruit and some kind of pastry or other dessert.
He serves meals like lobster bisque and pork scallopini – foods that go for $15 or $18 at a restaurant. He tries new dishes every week and makes notes on which ones are snatched up and which ones fall flat.
Boring and repetitive aren’t in his vocabulary. The people he serves deserve better than that, he said.
“If I have the means to go beyond chicken noodle soup, why wouldn’t I?” he said. “It just doesn’t seem fair not to.”
He admitted that planning meals can sometimes be a challenge.
He relies mostly on donations and pallets of food that come from the government to feed those who step into his kitchen.
He never knows what he’s going to get.
He received 600 boxes of shredded wheat recently from the government that has to be used in six months. He said he can’t just serve it hot at breakfast. People will just dump lots of sugar on it and make it really unhealthy.
He has to get creative. He’ll use it as a filler for meatloaf or as a topping on casseroles.
His number one rule is to waste nothing.
“You have to think outside of the box entirely,” he said. “It’s keeping me challenged and helping me recapture the creativity I lost.”
But it helps that he works in a generous community, he said.
Red Lobster routinely donates seafood, a hot item at the mission, he said. Pizza Hut often donates pizza. That’s a staple there, Brunnemer said. It’s almost always an entrée choice for people who won’t try some of his dishes.
Panera Bread drops off bags of fresh bread for them.
Marsh and Kroger give canned foods a lot. Chipotle grill gives chicken when it can.
Some days he worries that the food will stop coming in. It could happen at any time. There are times throughout the year when donations slow dramatically.
He’s not sure what would happen if donations dried up completely, he said. The mission serves more than 120,000 people a year. Those people are counting on him.
“You pray and wait and hope it keeps coming,” he said.
In the meantime, he’ll keep cooking and keep ministering to people.
He likes to say that he feeds people food and he feeds them the word of God — two of his favorite things.
In between jobs as a chef, Brunnemer was pastor at Eagle’s Nest Christian Fellowship in Miami County. He ministered there until it closed its doors.
“I thought, ‘That’s OK. God has another plan for me,’” he said. “But I needed to fill a gap. I felt kind of lost.”
That’s when the rescue mission job opened up. It was a perfect fit for him, he said.
When his duties as chef are done for the day, he sometimes signs up to lead a chapel service. Other times he counsels young men who seek his advice.
Recently, he started a program to train residents in the culinary arts.
He’ll show them how to chop, slice, dice and julienne. They’ll learn how to make some sauces. And then he’ll train them to get their SafeServ certification , which is highly sought after in the food industry.
Eight residents have already graduated from the program, and many of them have found jobs and moved out of the mission.
“They walk in with nothing and come out with a future,” he said.
Taylor said the mission is blessed to have someone like Brunnemer. A lot of soup kitchens are trying to bring trained chefs on staff, but not all of them can attract someone with his kind of experience.
But Brunnemer said he’s the lucky one. He can’t imagine leaving his kitchen at the Kokomo Rescue Mission.
“It’s really hard to walk away,” he said. “Of all the jobs I’ve had, what touches my heart most is being here.”
Lindsey Ziliak, Tribune Life & Style editor, can be reached at 765-454-8585, at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @LindseyZiliak.