The Los Angeles LGBT Center offers nearly every service imaginable: medical care, affordable housing, homeless shelters, legal services, employment services, cultural events, a charter high school, and advocacy for the entire LGBT community. Their seven locations across Los Angeles offer more services to more LGBT people than any other organization not just in the country, but in the world. Interwoven with many of these initiatives is food, from food pantries for seniors to meals served to homeless youth. But few guess they serve more than 74,000 meals a year.
In the future, the center’s culinary arm will be much more visible. The planned Anita May Rosenstein campus, slated to open in early 2019, will add housing and community space for both low income LGBT seniors and homeless youth to the heart of West Hollywood. As many as 100 units of affordable housing for seniors and 100 new beds for homeless youth will share a plaza. At its heart? A professional-grade commercial kitchen, which will feed seniors and youth alike.
Behind the culinary initiative is Susan Feniger, a board member at the LGBT center and one of Los Angeles’s best-known chefs. Along with her business partner Mary Sue Milliken, Feniger co-founded Border Grill and appeared on the popular TV show Too Hot Tamales. She also operates Blue Window, and competed on Top Chef Masters. Feniger is a lesbian and has been out professionally from the beginning of her career. Her work with the LGBT center began with culinary charity events, and as the only chef on the board, she’s especially invested in center’s food-focused programs.
Originally, Feninger suggested making the kitchen professional grade to offer a space for fundraising. Right now, most of the center’s charity dinners are hosted at private homes. In addition to a high-quality kitchen, the new campus will have a rooftop dining area ideal for events. But now Feniger sees so many more possibilities for growing the center’s food-focused missions.
A current standout is Arlita Miller, the center’s dietary coordinator. She works primarily in the long term transitional living program, overseeing the 24-bed facility’s kitchen. She’s been with the center for over 14 years and relishes her job. “I don’t have to go to work,” she says. “I get to come to work.” The transitional living program offers homeless LGBT youth free housing and training for up to 18 months. In addition to preparing meals, Miller helps youth in the transitional program learn to cook for themselves and navigate food budgeting. She is working on a cookbook composed of recipes she developed with the program’s residents.
Right now, Miller works in a small kitchen tucked away in the transitional housing. Placing a kitchen at the center of the complex will allow the center to showcase Miller’s work, and other initiatives like hers. Inviting seniors and youth to share the dining area also offers gathering space for two groups in the LGBT community who rarely have a chance to meet.
In fact, Feniger wants to take things a step further and have youth use the kitchen for culinary training—and to cook for the seniors. Inspired by the program at St. Joseph Center in Venice, which trains homeless people for jobs in the restaurant industry, she hopes to grow a similar program at the LGBT Center.
The center provides housing to 390 homeless youth a year, and serve 1,100 more in their resource center. If youth completed a few months of culinary training while living at the center, Feniger believes they could easily find a restaurant job once they were ready to live on their own. And with the seniors living across the courtyard, the training program would have a worthy audience to cook for.
Feniger will not be involved in the day to day of the new campus, though she wishes she could be. “When I retire, I want to dedicate more of my time here,” she says. But her long history in the restaurant industry makes this personal. At the moment, society’s ideas about chef culture are dominated by images straight, male, macho attitudes, but Feniger feels the restaurant industry is also a uniquely welcoming environment for LGBT people, both in front and back of the house. Coming up in the 70s and 80s, she always felt comfortable being out where she worked, and she wants to extend that feeling of openness to the next generation.
The tight-knit nature of restaurant culture strikes her as especially valuable for at-risk youth, many of whom come out of the foster care system. “There’s a family that happens in restaurants,” she says. “You’re working together, socializing together, having breakfast or lunch together, drinking after shift (hopefully not too much!). I’ve always been very out. In my restaurants, I think that helps employees feel safe.” When it comes to serving a population all too often left out of family meals and other rituals, fostering a sense of family, safety, and nourishment could not be more powerful.