Creative chef helps low-income families eat healthy

Rick Martin, executive chef and owner of Limestone Pizza

Rick Martin learned early on about the happiness a home-cooked meal can bring. With his mother working nights to support the family, Martin, the youngest of three, took to cooking meals for his brother and sister when he was still young.

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It was something he liked, and it happened to put him in their good graces. “I just thought it was great to put smiles on my siblings’ faces,” he said.

Martin would go on to cook for others professionally, putting smiles on thousands of faces. He worked in the kitchen at Free State Brewery for 20 years. For 15 of those years, Martin served as executive chef.

Then he took his love for cooking one step further. Martin turned his own expertise into classes aimed at helping low-income people save money and maximize the nutrition they can buy for their dollars by making home-cooked meals for themselves and their families.

Martin helped create cooking classes through Just Food, a Lawrence organization devoted to providing food to the needy. Martin’s main goal was to “show people they can cook from scratch at low cost,” making food that is healthier, cheaper and tastier than what they can find in a box.

To get the classes up and running, Martin and Just Food staff put together a makeshift instructional kitchen and a PowerPoint on the basic elements of cooking skills. Their first class drew 24 people, but Martin said that made for a crowded kitchen, which made it hard for him to give individual cooks much attention. They capped later classes at 16.

The class’ first meal: chicken noodle soup. With the soup, as with most meals made from scratch, each cook had control over the ingredients and ultimately the nutrition of the meal. Choosing the chicken cut and ingredient amounts, Martin said, “put fat and salt content in the control of the students. They don’t have that control with supplemental food (provided by food banks).”

And, importantly, the meals were inexpensive. The class ran numbers and found, ounce for ounce, that cooking chicken noodle soup from scratch was less than 50 percent of the cost of buying Campbell’s Soup in the store.

Later recipes included pasta dishes, curry chicken and rice, ratatouille and pesto. Everybody from the first class came back for more. “The whole point was to teach people the fun of cooking,” Martin said.

But the classes also helped empower people. Twenty-five percent of students no longer needed supplemental food from the food pantry, and nearly 100 percent of those surveyed said they were likely to go on to cook for themselves, Martin said. Although helping people with economic need was part of the class’ purpose, Martin didn’t want to play any role in the enrollment process. “I wanted to see them as students, not aid recipients,” he said.

Martin also has taught culinary arts classes at Eudora High School, where he gained much of the teaching experience he applied to the Just Food classes. Martin has moved on from the position, though he still volunteers at the school. Currently he works for the Kansas State Department of Education, training cafeteria staff in public schools. Or, as he likes to joke, “I teach lunch ladies.”

Martin sits on the Douglas County Food Policy Council, where he helps research and implement policy on land use, food insecurity and food access. He is also co-founder of Homegrown Lawrence, an organization that raises money for school gardens. On top of all that, he is preparing a cooking demonstration for a food-packing event with the United Way and, though he’s coy about details, Martin is planning a foray into business ownership.

With all the time he spends cooking for others and teaching others to cook (and teaching others to cook for others), when Martin cooks for himself he likes to keep things simple as possible. Fresh and local ingredients, in season, the fewer the better. Give him ratatouille, a salad, some cantaloupe and watermelon.

Or just the melon. “There’s nothing better than Kansas watermelon in the summer, all by itself,” he said.