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15 Minutes With…Jeremy Quattlebaum, the Denver Rescue Mission’s Head Chef

Each Thanksgiving, the Denver Rescue Mission accepts donations of more than 15,000 turkeys to feed the less fortunate. How do they manage? We asked their chef. 

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If the thought of preparing one turkey on Thanksgiving is intimidating, consider facing a freezer full of 15,000 birds. That’s the task that the Denver Rescue Mission hopes to face come Turkey Day.

Each year, the nonprofit puts out a call for frozen poultry—and each time, the Denver community comes through. For the 2014 holiday, you can donate birds weighing 12 pounds or more (click here for full details, including drop-off information) to help set the table at the organization’s annual Great Thanksgiving Banquet, fill holiday food boxes, or be gifted to families in need through other nonprofits, churches, and schools.

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So, how do you handle more than 90 tons of gobble-gobble? We sat down with Jeremy Quattlebaum, Denver Rescue Mission’s head chef, to chat about mystery ingredients, food with dignity, and his favorite dish to cook.

5280: What brought you to the Mission?

Jeremy Quattlebaum: I was the executive chef at Indian Tree Golf Club and I was the executive chef at Buffalo Run Golf Course before coming here… I really felt like I was good at what I did, and I enjoyed my jobs. I just didn’t feel like there was a lot of purpose in what I was doing. I was beginning to seek things out that would allow me to have that, and I showed up here at the Denver Rescue Mission. I interviewed, and that same day got offered the job.

What was day one like?

Day one was a little intimidating. It’s sad that I say this, but I had never set foot in a homeless shelter until I worked here. Never been in a soup kitchen. Luckily, I had spent some time in Haiti and had done some mission work out there, but it was just a little bit intimidating. After about day two or three, that intimidation wears off and you realize what you are here for. What you want to do.

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What was your goal?

I came in with a mindset that, OK, I’ve seen soup kitchens on TV, and all I pictured was that depressing line, and them slopping things on [trays]. I was like, How can I take the skills that I’ve learned being an executive chef and bring it here and make it more than just a meal? Make it an experience…. The biggest thing I realized is that as you observe homeless people, there is not a lot of dignity. That was the one word that kept sticking to my mind….My thought process was, Can I give them 15 to 20 minutes of dignity while they are in this building?

How do you do that, bring dignity and humanity to a busy meal line?

I never wanted to be one these chefs that just kind of tuck themselves in the back…. I don’t want to just be back there cooking. I want to come out and shake their hand. I want to be able to sit down with them and find out where they are at. One of the things I love doing is finding out their stories. What brought them here? Being able to hear those things, but also seeing how can we help.

You cook whatever is donated to the Mission. How do you plan a meal around mystery ingredients?

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It’s like that TV show Chopped, where you get a basket of ingredients. Every morning when I come to work I just open a basket and I see what I have. Instead of a basket I have a walk-in freezer.

What’s your favorite thing to cook here?

My favorite thing is “enchasagna.” It is our lasagna and our enchilada casserole. It’s phenomenal….We use tortillas instead of the lasagna noodles and instead of spaghetti sauce, I use an enchilada sauce. We put in cumin, ground pepper, onion, and, if we have them, red and green peppers. We throw some cheese on there and we make a sour cream sauce to go over the top of it.

How many turkeys do you cook each year for the Great Thanksgiving Banquet?

We probably cook 300 to 400 turkeys just for that meal. It’s about a week of planning. I don’t have to carve them the day-of, so we can [cook] them about a week ahead. We’ll cook them and pull them every single day and then we’ll freeze them that day. That [banquet] day starts at about 3 o’clock in the morning…. The sad thing about it is that I’m the only cook in my house, so then I have to go and do it the next day.

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What helps you get through the turkey drive or a long day where you serve more than 750 meals?

The fact of the matter is what we are doing here is really changing lives. It’s not just the meals. We are really focusing on giving not just a hand out, but a hand up.

Follow senior editor Natasha Gardner on Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest.

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