When you enter through the doors of Miriam’s Kitchen with a growling stomach, it doesn’t matter if you’ve slept on the street the night before or if the only possessions you own are in the bags you carry. You’re a dinner guest now, and just like at any five-star restaurant in the District, you’ll only be served the highest quality food.
At least that’s the standard that 25-year-old chef John Murphy strives for.
Murphy is the director of kitchen operations at Miriam’s Kitchen, a nonprofit in Foggy Bottom that has been providing nutritious meals and support services to the homeless for the last 30 years.
“It started with a small soup kitchen, and 20 years later it has transformed into something completely different,” says Murphy. Now, along with its breakfast and dinner programs, Miriam’s offers yoga classes, art therapy and case management services.
Murphy’s work in the food industry has evolved, too. After a ten-year stint in the restaurant business he found himself in the hospital with acute pancreatitis. The experience left him feeling vulnerable, and helpless — with mounting hospital bills, he was close to being put out on the streets himself.
“It felt like if this can happen to me, it can happen to anyone,” says Murphy. “I realized I had this need and desire to help people.”
That’s when he discovered Miriam’s Kitchen. For the past four years he has been integral in helping senior director of meals Steve Badt create the evening meal program and serving as a liaison to community gardeners and urban farmers.
But mostly it’s back in the kitchen where you can spot Murphy.
Murphy navigates through the chaos of pots of boiling water and bowls of kale, organizing the preparation of the evening meal. The clanking of pans and the sweet smell of pastries fill the kitchen. Volunteers help slice watermelon or cut meat for fajitas.
“Hey John, I need seasoning over here,” says a volunteer. Murphy goes over to his counter and helps him add spices to the burger patties.
Miriam’s relies on donations from local grocery stores and farmers for the majority of the food, including a student-run garden on George Washington University campus that donates all of its harvest to the kitchen. Thanks to these kinds of donations, during the growing season 60 percent of Miriam’s food comes from fresh sources.
Murphy enjoys the challenge of receiving food donations and whipping them up into something delicious.
“Part of the fun is never knowing what you’re going to get. Like trying to figure out how to use 100 pounds of fresh venison,” he says.
On one particular day, Lisa Davis, a volunteer from the hunger-relief charity Feeding America, is in a corner slicing meat for fajitas. She is one of a thousand volunteers yearly that don a Miriam’s Kitchen apron and devote their time to helping in the kitchen.
“Food is the foundation of so many things–health, child development, education. It signifies family and tradition,” she says.
For Murphy, even on days when things get a little bit too hot in the kitchen, he reminds himself of the reason why he does the work he does: to see the guests go through the serving line with colorful and delicious food stacked high on their plates.
“Food is community,” he says.