On a quiet, tucked away block in downtown Chico, an unassuming building houses a safe haven for homeless youth in our town. Like me, most never notice the 6th Street Center for Youth between Main and Broadway. Unlike me, chef and restaurant owner Ann Leon, of Leon Bistro, had noticed the center. Its location is close to her restaurant. Seeing young people camping and living in areas nearby, as well as walking by her restaurant during the day, Ann would give food and a word of encouragement. These small gestures of kindness soon led her to reach out to help in a much bigger way.
As a member of Soroptimist International (SI) of Chico, Ann attended a meeting where Jennifer Barzey, the Program Manager of the 6th Street Center, presented. It turned out that Leon Bistro and 6th Street both opened their doors in 2008. At the SI meeting, Jennifer spoke about the young people that Ann was seeing downtown. She told compelling stories of youth who feel lost, have no home or caretakers, who are hungry and without direction. Many of them are currently or were formerly in the foster care system. Most have experienced extremely difficult circumstances, unfathomable to privileged Chico teens or young adults. After hearing the moving stories Jennifer shared and learning about the good work that the center is doing, Ann felt compelled to see how she could help.
The mission of the center is to provide homeless and runaway youths ages fourteen to twenty-four with a full array of resources and to help with the goal of transitioning them into a healthy productive lifestyle. Jennifer said that the center serves close to 300 homeless young people in our community annually. The center opened ten years ago, as a result of collaboration between Youth for Change, Butte County Department of Behavioral Health, and the Runaway and Homeless Youth Task Force. The late Coleen Jarvis, former City Councilperson and Vice Mayor, was a strong advocate for youth and homeless people, played a key role in the formation of the task force, and raised awareness about the need for homeless youth services. The center is funded by the Mental Health Services Act and operates on a slim budget to provide a spectrum of much needed services. Private donations are also crucial to supplementing the needs of the center.
The Center’s five staff work hard to assist the young people who drop in. As they come through the doors for the first time, they are met by a case manager, who helps to assess their situation. All who enter are asked to “join” the center, thereby making a commitment to set some goals to improve their circumstances and, in return, help with chores and tasks. Services offered fall into two categories. First there are case management services, including things like counseling, crisis intervention, life skills, medical referrals, housing assistance, employment readiness, and school enrollment/tutoring. The other category covers basic needs like showers, clothing, mail, computers, and laundry as well as one meal each day, Monday through Friday at 4:30.
The light went on for Ann. This is where she could help. Once Ann discovered that 6th Street was providing a daily meal, she offered to produce a complete meal every week on the day that worked best for the center. Jennifer could hardly believe the offer and told her that Friday would be the most helpful. Since 6th Street is only open during the week, the meal on Friday afternoon is the most important. For some, it’s the last full and hearty meal they will have until Monday. Ann agreed and now, almost a year later, Leon Bistro, one of the most highly regarded restaurants in Chico, has been serving homeless and runaway youths Friday dinner at the 6th Street Center for Youth.
Each Friday, staff from 6th Street pick up Ann Leon’s weekly meal donation. Johnny Meehan, one of the caseworkers at the center said, “It feels surreal that this happens every week, but it’s really happening.” The menu from a recent Friday dinner included southern country fried chicken, sliced watermelon, southern style potato salad, creamy coleslaw, honey white corn with herbs, lemon and cotija cheese, loaves of bread still hot from the oven, and a delectable triple chocolate mousse cake with strawberry gastrique that was on the menu at Leon Bistro that evening. Ann emphasized that everything she provides is homemade in her restaurant kitchen noting, “It’s important to me that it looks good to them and that they have the most incredible meal possible every week.” Often the food is similar or the same as items on the menu that evening in the restaurant. Ann remarked that one goal is to get the youth to try new things that they may not have eaten before. “I try to make it comforting food that is substantial and very healthy.” She provides a large quantity of food for each meal, hoping to not only feed the growing numbers who show up Friday afternoon for this special meal, but also to assure leftovers. When possible, she also sends boxes of fruit, bottled water, and her signature homemade veggies chips so the youth can take some things to go, to help carry them through the weekend.
For Ann, cooking came naturally and early. She said both her mom and grandmother were excellent cooks and they had considered opening a restaurant when Ann was young. Though that didn’t happen, they did teach and encourage her cooking skills. By age ten, Ann was making dinners for the family and creating dishes for her mom’s dinner parties. Ann fondly notes, “I made things like salmon with aspic.” Most ten-year olds are struggling to serve themselves cereal, let alone making salmon aspic for a party. At twelve, she had a repertoire of homemade soup recipes that local area restaurants in Berkeley would purchase for $10 a gallon. She chuckled remembering, “I would stand on a stool to reach the depth of the pot, pureeing the soup with an outboard motor that I could hardly hold.” She went on, “My parents would dine out with friends and brag during the soup course, telling everyone it was made by me.” At age fifteen, Ann developed a system to smoke meats and sold them to nearby charcuteries. Becoming a chef was clearly her destiny, and the connection between food, cooking, and community was also part of her DNA.
As is often the case for life-long passions, Ann’s parents played a critical role in her sense of philanthropy. Ann’s mother was a grant writer and volunteered in her community. One of her mom’s significant contributions was active involvement in the formation of the American Disabilities Act. Giving back was modeled throughout Ann’s childhood and became second nature.
With this value at heart, Ann feels that caring for the community is at the core of her job as a chef. She clearly does this with passion, not only for the 6th Street youth, but in many other ways as well. Her membership in Soroptimist International of Chico provides an array of opportunities to help locally and beyond. She is involved in the new Chico Children’s Museum helping them fundraise and also consulting on farm to table style interactive exhibits for kids. Furthermore, Ann volunteers at the annual Stonewall Chico Pride event cooking and then providing free brunch for up to 1,000 attendees during the celebration.
Ann takes on interns from culinary academies and our local area high schools. She teaches regular cooking classes at Leon Bistro on Tuesday nights covering a range of topics from preparing exotic mushrooms to creating unique sauces and mouthwatering Indian and Thai dishes. Ann said that she hopes to do even more. “My restaurant is an educational kitchen. I want to get more involved with the University and Butte College and put the emphasis back on food; we are an agricultural community.”
Ann observed that one of the things that makes her work with the 6th Street Center for Youth a perfect fit as a chef is the paradigm of appreciating the path from origin to end-point. With food, she considers the soil, the farming method, the harvest, and then of course the preparation, serving, and ending with tasty consumption. She said it’s the same with the youth of 6th Street; “It’s a cycle, just like with food, and we have to intervene early, as close to origin as we can, to have the most positive outcome.” Ann said some farmers and food providers donate items to help her with the Friday meals. “It’s important to me to create an atmosphere of sharing between farms and our whole community,” she said. Ann sources her ingredients locally whenever feasible, and most all her suppliers are from Northern California. Among the many local providers, cheese comes from Orland Farmstead, veggies from Comanche Creek, and mushrooms from The Mushroom Authority.
The impact of the Friday meal is clear. Youth at the center express the resounding joy that this special feast brings. One teenage client of the center, Hannah, remarked she wakes up every Monday morning thinking how she can’t wait for Friday’s dinner. Hannah noted, “It’s clean and elegant food, and it makes me feel good. The coconut curry is amazing.” Another client, Sophia, said her favorite is the lasagna, and she looks forward to Fridays and “the best meal ever.” One young man commented that he was so thankful to have been released from jail on Thursday because he didn’t have to miss Fridays’ dinner. Jennifer said it is the best attended meal, which translates into more time for connections and relationship building to happen. These elements are essential between the youth and the center staff in order for trust to be established and the next steps to be taken. Jennifer adds, “The other major benefit is that the youth see that the community cares.” Working with the 6th Street Center for Youth, Chef Ann Leon’s passion for food and her compassion for the most vulnerable in our community make a difference one Friday at a time.
If you want to help: The 6th Street Center for Youth relies on donations of many items from community members. Please refer to the items listed (those that are highlighted are most needed). Also, you can help by supporting Ann Leon by dining at Leon Bistro and attending her outstanding and educational cooking classes. Websites: 6thstreetcenter.org, www.leonbistro.com
Bonnie and Ken Chapman are partners in many of life’s great endeavors including marriage, raising two children, global travel adventures and writing for Edible Shasta-Butte. Both are avid trail runners and you can find them enjoying Upper Bidwell Park or wherever the trails take them.