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Lawrence Chef Rick Martin passionate about helping youth, low-income residents eat healthier

By KARREY BRITT
| Communications Coordinator

On a recent Monday morning, Lawrence resident Rick Martin gave an hourlong presentation to high school students enrolled in a culinary arts class at Holcomb Park Recreation Center. He provided insight into what his life is like as a chef and restaurant owner, and he talked candidly about what led to his career in the culinary business.

Martin said he grew up very poor, but his mom believed in putting healthy food on the table. “We ate out of my uncle’s garden a lot in the summertime and that was a big deal to me. We didn’t go to McDonald’s or out to eat. It was always about home-cooked meals even if it was ramen noodles or rice and beans,” he said. His mom worked multiple jobs so he cooked every day for his family and he liked to experiment with herbs and spices and figure out how to make foods taste better.

After high school, Martin pursued a biology degree at the University of Kansas because he wanted to be a scientist. He was working full-time in the restaurant business to pay for college. “I was struggling to keep up and I realized I was good at cooking and making pretty good money.” Martin described himself as a self-taught chef and business owner. “I had to teach myself and I took advantage of every opportunity someone offered to teach me how to do it and I’m so thankful that I did that,” he said.

Martin has worked as the executive chef at Free State Brewing Company and as the culinary art director at Eudora High School. About a year ago, he opened Limestone Pizza in downtown Lawrence. He often works long hours and on weekends and holidays. He said his work varies from washing dishes and cooking to developing menus and training staff. Martin also said it’s important to him to offer prices that a working family can afford. Additionally, Martin cares about the environment and community. The restaurant produces less than 2 percent waste. The owners recycle, compost, and sell waste oil to KU for biofuel. Fifty-four percent of the food is purchased from local farmers, butchers, creameries, bakeries and a Kansas organic wheat mill. His parting advice to the students: Get involved in the community. “Sometimes the best learning opportunities come from helping other people because you feel good about it and it comes back to you.”
Rick Martin

Making a difference
Martin has taken that advice to heart, giving countless hours of time to the community. His efforts include:

• Working with the Lawrence Public Schools' Farm to School program and serving on the advisory board. He has worked with student gardeners and helped them develop recipes using the produce they’ve grown. He has provided cafeteria demonstrations for hundreds of middle school students. He provides presentations at school career days. “Anytime a school asks me to come talk to the kids, I love it and love to pass along information,” he said.

• Providing continuing education classes for the Lawrence Public School’s food service staff on topics from knife skills to vegetable preparation methods. Lindsey Morgan, food service supervisor for the Lawrence Public Schools, described Martin as innovative, adventurous and passionate about his work. “You can tell it’s his passion because it is reflected in his food. He loves to experiment with different ingredients, combining them in many ways to get a new and special taste.” She said Martin has really worked to make anything he does relevant and useful to the school’s food service staff. Martin provides similar training through the Kansas State Department of Education’s Child Nutrition and Wellness program and has recently traveled to schools in Manhattan, Dodge City and Girard.

• Founding the Lawrence Chefs and Farmers Alliance, a coalition to connect chefs and farmers to help facilitate restaurant purchases from local farms. The coalition is creating a directory of local farms that want to sell to local chefs.

• Serving on the Douglas County Food Policy Council. He helped create the Chefs’ Challenge, an annual event at the Douglas County Fair where chefs use local ingredients to create dishes. The event draws hundreds of attendees.

• Adopting a family during the holidays. Every year, he organizes an effort with employees or students to help those in need. Martin led an effort at Free State Brewing Company for years and then at Eudora High School and Limestone Pizza. “Our employees loved it and they had such a great time buying gifts for a family at the Lawrence Community Shelter.”

• Creating and teaching cooking classes at Douglas County’s food pantry, Just Food, and then showing others how to teach the classes. Jeremy Farmer, executive director at Just Food, said Martin approached him in 2011 and asked how he could help people who are hungry in Douglas County. Farmer said they talked for four or five hours and during that conversation Martin brought up the idea of teaching residents how to cook nutritious meals that tasted good and cost less than $2 per serving. “Cooking classes had never crossed my mind before and so we started dreaming,” Farmer said. On top of a full-time job, Martin spent just as many hours developing the curriculum for Just Food’s cooking classes, and Farmer said he couldn’t believe the dishes Martin came up with: Coconut curry chicken with white jasmine rice and a cilantro salad, spaghetti carbonara with pork ragu, and homemade chicken noodle soup. “My goal was to show them how to make it better and healthier than the convenient stuff,” Martin said.

Redefining Just Food's mission
Just Food launched its first cooking class in September 2012 and since then, 1,600 families have participated in at least one class. Just Food surveyed those clients and they learned: 87 percent were more self-sufficient, 95 percent wanted to make healthier choices, and 95 percent wanted to take an intermediate cooking class. One client said, “I feel like I’m eating rich-people food.” Overall, there was a 50 percent reduction in the amount of fast food they were eating. Martin also helped Just Food secure a cooler to store produce that is donated by local farmers or grown in the pantry’s garden.

Farmer said Martin has redefined the mission of the food pantry. It’s no longer about giving out quantities of food, but rather giving people quality food and the skills to use it. “We owe everything to Rick Martin. We wouldn’t be the organization we are today without him. He has made huge impacts on the community’s health.” However, Martin is humble about his work. “It’s about the greater good of the community. There’s just a certain reward in feeling like the legacy is going to be that I did help a lot of people. I think that’s a lot better legacy than have a chain of successful restaurants.”