Like any chef, Kenneth A. Bunns appreciates a compliment. Recently, while leaving Old Soul, the coffee shop on Broadway and 35th Street in Oak Park, he encounters three young men enjoying takeout food – fresh corn, Mexican style — they received from nearby Wellspring Women’s Center.
“Man, this is great!” says the older of the three.
A grin creases the face of the man known as “Chef,” who is winding up another workday as Wellspring’s new hospitality manager. The compliments to Chef are as good as currency.
Chef Ken joined Wellspring in March, after two years of retirement and, before that, an adventurous, wide-ranging and successful career in the many facets of food preparation, services and administration.
Certified as an executive chef, Bunns’ career of more than three decades led him from his hometown of Stockton to an impressive resume of corporate, school district, governmental and nonprofit positions all over the regional map, including Lodi, Modesto and Reno, where, in 1978, he helped opened the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino as a sous chef. Later in his career, an entrepreneurial bent led him to launch Bunns Food Systems, a specialized catering company, aka CheftotheStars.com, which bumped elbows with stellar and VIP clients ranging from Ray Charles, Dionne Warwick and Little Richard to Congresswoman Maxine Waters.
But as a retiree, he was missing the daily hustle and creative juices of his chosen profession.
Chef Ken’s opportunity for another taste of career arose when Julie Oliver, Wellspring’s longtime kitchen guru, decided to take a well-deserved break and pursue other career choices.
Bunns was the clear choice in a very strong field of applicants for the post of hospitality manager, the person who executes the nonprofit’s weekday nutritional program, which is at the very core of its mission – the setting of the table for “hospitality with dignity and love.”
Wellspring, he believes, is the perfect landing for a 60-something post-retiree with lots of energy and ideas to bring to a nonprofit with an enviable track record of success.
Chef is in awe of Wellspring’s many years of service to women and children.
“This very needed nonprofit in the Oak Park community makes very meaningful progress that shows instant results,” says Bunns, who points to the facial expressions of the many guests as a reflection of the appreciation for the effort regularly put forth by staffers and volunteers on their behalf.
To say the job of hospitality manager presented a unique set of challenges to Bunns is an understatement.
He was at Wellspring only a few weeks before being forced to pivot from catering to guests in a dining room setting to serving hot meals in carryout containers and handed out at the door.
With the arrival of the pandemic, it was no longer business as usual in the brave, new world of social distancing.
While Wellspring’s devoted base of volunteers – many of them senior citizens – were ordered to stay home, its guests — women and children — continued showing up for the breakfast/lunch offering. Men – who are not part of Wellspring’s mission – also joined the food lines. Among staffers, it was all hands on deck to meet the new demands square-on.
Bunns said his major takeout challenge was “learning how to make meals that are more inclusive – like casseroles.
“The goal on any given day,” he says, “is to include that nutrient-based element with what I serve to provide the highest quality of meal production available for our guests.”
With that in mind, Chef begins his day at Wellspring sometimes at 5:30 in the morning, with meal plans in place but also open to the unexpected – such as the donation of food items that “give me an opportunity to be creative.”
Wellspring’s weekday menu is a testament to Bunns’ penchant for the creative, much to the delight of the nonprofit’s guests, who have dined on entrees including Impossible meatloaf with spicy Thai sauce; roasted tomato soup with sandwiches; roasted turnip and beet salad; sausage and peppers with potatoes, scrambled eggs and toast; and stuffed pumpkin and cheese ravioli.
After preparing the menu for the day, Chef’s attention turns to restocking supplies and preparing for the next day and beyond. Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services is a big part of that equation, and Chef is a familiar customer at the Food Services Campus warehouse on Bell Avenue, where he replenishes the basics, including fresh fruit and vegetables, milk, juice, butter and eggs. He also takes advantage of the availability of other specials, such as donated prepared salads nearing the end of their shelf lives at local grocery stores.
Bunns has built a rapport with Wellspring’s guests – the women and children who come from all walks of life, from the unhoused to those waging a daily battle with poverty and others finding a respite from the isolation of old age.
“They call me ‘Chef,’” Bunns says of the guests, who on occasion have showered him with an outburst of applause for serving food that particularly tickles the taste buds.
Chef Ken said he was taken aback when one guest presented him with a thank-you card for his culinary feats that make her feel at home and special.
What the woman said touched him deeply: “My Mom is looking down from Heaven, saying God sent you here to take care of me.”
Genelle Smith, executive director of Wellspring, offers high praise for the can-do attitude and derring-do of the new hospitality manager.
“Chef Ken is all heart!” she said. “He uses his culinary knowledge, skills and talents to give lovingly in our community. That love is felt and received by our guests.”
“In the midst of a pandemic, Chef Ken gracefully stepped up to ensure that our guests receive a delicious hot meal by arriving early each morning to prepare food, making extra runs to the Food Bank, and working without our usual volunteer help. Chef Ken always goes the extra mile and evokes a true spirit of camaraderie with the whole Wellspring team.”
Chef comes from a humble background.
He was raised by grandparents who made a home for him and his six siblings after the death of his mother. With that many mouths to feed, he said, everyone was involved in the preparation of food.
When he was 16, young Ken got his first taste of the business of food when Frank Thompson, executive director of the Boys Club in Stockton, helped him get a job as a dishwasher at a local Denny’s. There, he also worked as a busboy, graduated to prep cook, then line cook, before being assigned to the prestigious job of daytime cook. Then, after three years at Denny’s, it was off to culinary school and the ingredients of a many-flavored career.
Chef’s worldview also was shaped by a chance during his professional life to travel to Italy, where he was immersed in the familial and celebratory joy of Italy’s legendary food scene.
By extension, Chef Ken is hoping to share his knowledge and skills with the guests by teaching a class on budgeting for healthy food and making the most of it – “thinking about what you have and marrying the flavors.”.
And, he is the star power of “Cooking for Hope” — a promising newcomer to Wellspring’s lineup of fundraisers – featuring the storied Chef conducting a Zoom cooking class on simply doable preparations for spectacular dishes, including stuffed beef tenderloin steak and spicy sweet potato hash.
Bunns, whose outgoing personality makes him a natural in front of the camera, has already put together video cooking tutorials that emphatically check the boxes of entertaining and informative.
Stay tuned for further information on “Cooking for Hope.”