Weekly Q&A: Catholic Charities’ Juan Penate on “Jesus food” and second chances that start in the kitchen

Juan Penate is providing health, hope and dignity, one plate at a time.
Photo: Zack W.
Matt Kelemen

Lunch shift is over at Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada on the hottest day of the year yet, but Juan Penate betrays no fatigue. The executive chef of the St. Vincent Lied Dining Facility seems to have inexhaustible energy when it comes to serving nutritious meals made with limited means and inspired expertise to as many as 800 disadvantaged clients in the heart of the homeless corridor north of Downtown.

Penate and chefs Paul Munson and Benito Montano prepare free community meals seven days a week, $4 breakfasts and lunches Monday through Friday and Meals on Wheels assistance to people who can’t make it to the facility, now in its 50th year. It’s a job he loves, but wishes one day there would be no need for.

You’re part of a legacy that goes back 50 years, but on the other hand it’s a war you can never win. I always say if homelessness was a profitable business, it would be the perfect business because it just keeps growing. The need is there. We see it on our sidewalks, day in, day out. So the evidence is there. You’ve gotta look the other way not to notice it.

I understand Sands Expo and Convention Center has been a great help lately. If they have a convention for 10,000 people or more, they’re always left with a tremendous amount of food. So through Ryan Green at Sands, through Three Square delivering it to us, we are able to feed many, many people. Last donation I got three weeks ago, I was able to feed 4,000 people. I would love to see more hotels and casinos get in the trend of giving their leftovers to the nonprofits so we could eliminate a bigger percentage of hunger in Las Vegas.

Improvising must be an important aspect of your job. We never know what’s going to come in through that back door. Sometimes we get things that are not so appealing, sometimes we get things that we have to throw away right away because they are not servable, edible. And then sometimes we get surprised with filet mignon or a nice piece of swordfish or salmon. My chefs and I, we talk a lot, and we struggle. Sometimes there’s not enough food in the refrigerators. And then my budget is around $2,000, $2,300 a week to feed this mass amount of people. We rely on donations. We are very donation driven, but sometimes we don’t have enough.

But there are always surprises. Yeah. Chef Paul calls it Jesus food. If we don’t have something and we hope to get it, and it comes the next day, he goes, “Chef Juan, this is God’s food. That’s how he provides to us.” I’m a big believer in that now, because sure enough when we hope for something to get donated that I cannot afford or it’s overpriced and I cannot dare order it, it comes in and gets donated.

Do you recall the first meal you served from this kitchen? I remember walking through here and knowing the necessity that it was to make better the meal service we were providing. I wasn’t satisfied. As soon as I came in we started cleaning. It needed to be clean, and it needed to resemble a sanitary kitchen. If we were going to provide health, hope and certainly dignity, it all starts with the way you handle the product that the clients are going to consume.

Some of those clients help out in the kitchen. How do they benefit? We teach them the basic skills, the basic knife skills. We are strong on making sure you’re on time, that you’re groomed, that your hygiene is good. And then we teach them as much as they want to learn. Then we have a system in place. We have a partnership with Culinary Academy of Las Vegas, and we’re able to send them to get a certificate. We have had a few success stories from men we had trained in our kitchen. Soon enough, they leave the academy with a job lined up. Little by little they get their life back together.

Do you see yourself working here for a long time to come? I know for sure this is where I want to retire. This will be my last employer. I worked for different establishments, and I don’t think anything has pleased me so much as far as serving a client. I’d rather serve the clients I’m serving now than to serve those who have millions.

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