Close Encounters
‘Cooks’ Alley; Do Not Enter’

Cathy Cockrell


Chefs Ricky Pineda, left, and Ed Anonical cook up gumbos, soups, gravies and chilis in the kitchen’s 50-gallon stainless-steel kettles.
Peg Skorpinski photo

09 May 2001 | Traveling on two legs or three, on foot, by bus or by car, a rainbow nation of elderly arrives at the North Berkeley Senior Center, just before noon, for camaraderie and a square meal in the center’s spacious dining hall.

Today’s main attraction: baked potato — topped with turkey chili, beans and cheese — with mixed green salad, biscuits, peas and carrots, peanut butter cookies and drinks on the side.

All of which came — in color-coded, temperature-controlled transport containers — from the giant kettles, piping hot ovens and chilly walk-in refrigerators of the campus’s Foothill dining facility.

There, manager Gail Martinez consults with local agencies, which contract with Housing and Dining Services to produce Meals on Wheels. Together they come up with menus for 500-plus East Bay seniors a day; then Martinez meets with her staff to go over the next day’s grub.

Just beyond the sign that reads “Cooks’ Alley; Do Not Enter,” chefs Ed Anonical and Ricky Pineda step into action — working cheek by jowl alongside the crews who feed 800 Foothill residents and prepare 1,200 sandwiches, salads and desserts a day for campus restaurants — to turn out a daily repast for East Bay elders.

Baked goods start out in Anonical’s oven shortly after 4:30 a.m., when he dons his towering, starch-fortified chef’s hat, retrieves his tools from a locked refrigerator, and mixes his batters.

Originally from a small town in the Philippines, Anonical got his sea legs, and culinary expertise, as a cook in the U.S. military, where he fed as many as 6,000 sailors at a time on Naval carriers.

Now he has only slightly fewer mouths to feed. From his baking pans each morning emerge a mere 24 loaves of banana bread for campus restaurants, as well as desserts and breads for Meals on Wheels. Later he turns his attention to his popular gumbos, soups and gravies, which he creates in a 50-gallon stainless-steel kettle.

At the adjoining counter, Pineda meanwhile manufactures vegetables and main dishes amidst tall metal storage racks, food steamers, ovens and giant-sized utensils. The recipe for turkey chili, on an 11-by-15 computer printout, offers instructions in meticulous detail — from the 45 pounds of ground turkey “steamed in jacked kettle until all signs of pink in meat has disappeared,” to the minutely calculated “1/4 cup, 1 1/4 tsp. black pepper.”

“We really follow recipes to a T,” explains Pineda, who learned to cook in his family’s restaurant in metropolitan Manila.

Time-tested campus dishes are modified to provide Meals on Wheels clients with fare low in sodium and fat and with prescribed amounts of protein and Vitamins A and C.

Martinez keeps such requirements in mind when working up the menus, as does storekeeper David Hsueh when submitting his weekly order for up to 500 cases of ingredients — cheese in 40-pound blocks; tubs of 192 whole peeled eggs; and cartons of fish, meat, produce and spices.

“The hardest thing is to get products in if they don’t have stock,” says Hsueh. When the supplier ran out of sole for Meals on Wheels’ Good Friday menu, he ordered pollock as a substitute. “They like those kind of fish; it’s crunchy. A ten-pound box, that’s four ounces apiece,” he calculates.

To avoid food spoilage, temperatures, too, are crucial. Between 40 and 165 degrees Fahrenheit “is what we call the danger zone,” cautions Martinez. “Whether hot or cold, we make sure to keep out of that zone.”

Pineda stores his digital thermometer in a narrow pocket on his shoulder, and uses it frequently to verify and record temperatures of meals in progress.

His final check is close to 10 a.m., when a truck loaded with color-coded insulated containers — white for Emeryville, green and yellow for South and North Berkeley — heads straight down Hearst toward the North Berkeley Senior Center, and points beyond.

“Close Encounters” is an occasional column documenting unofficial moments in campus life.


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