ST. PAUL, Minn. — Jeff Ansorge once commanded a staff of 17 and made about $80,000 a year as the executive chef at a posh downtown Minneapolis restaurant where a 24-ounce dry aged Porterhouse steak goes for $48. But he gave it all up to become the head cook of a Salvation Army soup kitchen, where the meals are free.
Now he brings his culinary skills to bear making salmon, ribs and stews for the poor and homeless who come to the Salvation Army Eastside Corps Community Center in St. Paul. For the Thanksgiving meal served Wednesday, Ansorge prepared a traditional feast of turkey with stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce and rolls.
"It is not your old-fashioned soup kitchen, where you get a bowl of soup and a piece of bread and (are) sent on your way. He makes phenomenal meals that you would pay quite a bit of money to go to a restaurant and have," Salvation Army Capt. John Joyner said of Ansorge, who left the Capital Grille to run the soup kitchen.
The clients agree.
"This is outstanding. On a scale of 1 to 10, I give him an 8 ½, yep," Donnie Richardson, 55, a homeless man from St. Paul, said over a meal of chicken thighs, rice and mixed vegetables in the center's white-walled gymnasium.
Ansorge, 40, says a spiritual awakening led him to his new job at the soup kitchen in October 2012, making just one-third of his previous salary.
"I went through a divorce. I was suffering from major depression for four years. And my priorities were all wrong," Ansorge recalled while standing near the center's pantry shelves. "I wanted the high-paying job. I wanted the big house. I wanted the cars. I wanted all that. And, ultimately, none of that satisfied me."
Before Ansorge came to the soup kitchen, the Salvation Army spent $28,000 on its lunch program at the East Side center. In Ansorge's first year there, he spent $13,000 on the lunch program. The center serves from 80 to 140 people each day at its Monday through Friday noon meals.
Ansorge also tries to bring nutritional value to whatever meal he serves.
He has eliminated desserts and cut back on the fat and sugars in meals.
"I don't want to feed them anything that I wouldn't eat," he said. "I try to feed them something that I would feed to my own family."