Chef trades fame for Salvation Army kitchen
Written by Julie Borgen, Twin Cities Media Relations Director for The Salvation Army Northern Division
What do you get when you cross a highly educated theologian with a head chef at one of the hottest restaurants in town? You get Josh Bau (pictured), the new cook and part-time case manager at the Payne Ave. Salvation Army in St. Paul.
Bau, 33, holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in theology. He was well on his way to earning a doctorate in the subject when the college he attended cancelled the program.
“I had done all the coursework and was just starting on my dissertation, and it was abruptly done and over,” Bau said.
Then, as luck would have it, a friend was about to open a restaurant – Ward 6 Eastside Food and Drink – and recruited Josh to try his hand in the kitchen.
“He said hey, you’re a good home cook, why not come over here and learn? So I started out as a prep cook and worked my way up to be one of two head chefs,” Bau explained.
Ward 6 is one of the hot new spots to eat on St. Paul’s Eastside and Bau says he learned from some of the best chefs in town.
But despite his success, Bau says it felt empty.
“I realized I didn’t want to just cook for rich people. It’s also a job where you work all the time and it becomes your life. So I decided I wasn’t going to cook anymore, unless I was feeding the hungry,” he explained.
“I lived about six blocks away,” Bau said. “I am invested in this neighborhood, so it was perfect.”
Now he uses his creativity in the kitchen to create meals mainly from donated food, feeding at least 100 people a free lunch every Monday through Friday. Guests enjoy everything from a vegan chili and cornbread to a beef casserole made with eggplant, zucchini and mushrooms.
What surprises him most about working at The Salvation Army? That the majority of the people he cooks for have jobs, but simply don’t earn enough money to make ends meet.
“It is truly shocking how many people live with food insecurity,” Bau said. “With rent and the cost of living so high, a car repair or a medical bill can mean they go hungry.”
After the lunch service, Bau pitches in wherever he’s needed. That can mean anything from working the front desk, to stocking the food shelf and helping out with events.
“Josh is pretty amazing,” said Envoy Don LaMar, administrator of the Payne Ave. Salvation Army. “Not only does he bring a ton of skills, and a fresh new vision to us, he also embraces our mission and helps wherever he can.”
Bau also works as a part-time case manager, helping people connect with additional Salvation Army resources. While some face daunting challenges, Bau says he now feels like part of the solution.
“A crisis in the restaurant business is when the dishwasher calls in sick, or you run out of chicken,” Bau noted. “Here, someone might get kicked out of their house or go hungry. No one should have to go without food. We can’t fix everything, but we can do something, and that is what counts.”