Roasted chicken thighs and potatoes glisten alongside fluffy biscuits and creamy butter. Crisp watermelon and juicy pineapple lie sliced on the side, while nutty coffee and cream sit ready for the pouring. It’s a feast fit for kings, and when Jeff Ansorge serves this free hot lunch to his guests at The Salvation Army in St. Paul, Minn., he’s seasoned it with a generous dash of his own humility.
Until two years ago, Jeff led the kitchen at one of the Twin Cities’ top restaurants, the Capital Grille, readily preparing entrées starting at $40. But in 2010, he willingly left his six-figure salary and high-end chef’s reputation to follow where God seemed to be directing him.
Photo: Craig Dirkes/The Salvation ArmyFresh produce and quality meats are key to the new menu at The Salvation Army kitchen, thanks to Jeff Ansorge.
“God kind of crushed me and opened my eyes to Him,” he says about the season in life that preceded his career change. “I thought I had everything I wanted: a big-money job, a house, all that goes along with the American dream. And then, all that I was trying to satisfy myself with stopped working for me.
“I loved the people I worked with and really liked my job,” he adds, “but the pushing for profit above all else rubbed me the wrong way. I couldn’t do it anymore.”
Bryan Lair, one of Jeff’s pastors at Trinity City Church (EFC) in St. Paul, remembers meeting with Jeff to discuss the chef’s possible move. One of the church’s key tenets is the idea of faith-and-work integration—notably, the idea that all work is God’s work, and that by fulfilling our various vocations, we’re bringing the kingdom. So Bryan assured Jeff that if he felt called to grilling steaks for Minneapolis’ upper crust, he could very well still glorify God by doing so.
But Jeff felt pushed by the Holy Spirit to do work “that helped those in need in the name of Christ,” he says, and so he left behind his well-worn chef whites to begin a seven-month journey of finding a job in the nonprofit realm.
“He even applied to a couple of other homeless ministries that turned him down,” Bryan remembers, “and who were likely thinking, Who is this guy? Is he for real?” After all, Jeff had worked in the industry for 23 years and served in a management capacity for more than a decade.
Back to the basics
But at the end of the long wait was a refreshing chance to get back to the basics of food. “I was so charged up to be hands-on in the kitchen and serve those who came through,” Jeff explains, reflecting on his first day at The Salvation Army. “It was kind of why I got into food service in the first place.”
Along with his fresh start came a chance to liven up the menu, with an eye toward improving quality. Gone went the powdered coffee creamer and processed chicken strips, and in came real dairy and whole chickens—simple decisions, among others, that have gone a long way toward honoring the guests.
“This is how he served at the Capital Grille,” Bryan says. “He’s giving them the same quality of service and food, believing that—as image-bearers of God—they’re due the same respect and honor and dignity.”
But Jeff gives a more simple explanation of his motives. “I love food,” he says, “so if I wouldn’t want to eat it, I won’t serve it.”
In fact, such matter-of-factness permeates all of Jeff’s responses. To him, it wasn’t a drastic decision to leave the salary and status behind; using his culinary talents to serve a different clientele is simply a reflection of his newfound faith in Christ.
A similar thread seems woven throughout Trinity Church. Bryan shares a few other recent tales, including one about a community group that adopted a refugee family, helping them with everything from budgeting and finding furniture to caring for kids and advocating for jobs. And then another about a member who—in seeking ways to help the homeless—recently welcomed a couple of guys into his home, feeding them and giving them a night’s shelter.
“I love these types of stories,” Bryan says. “They show a real type of radical action.” And yet he adds that the church is not doing anything intentional to inspire such acts.
“We’re not trying to do anything new, but do the really ancient things well,” he says of the 3-year-old church. “I think there’s a sense that, as Christians, these are things we’re supposed to be doing.”
For Jeff, the conviction that he’s following God’s lead is confirmed by an inner peace. “Every week,” he adds, “I see the fruits of my labor in the faces and voices of those I serve.”
So for now, he’s grateful to be putting his culinary skills to work at The Salvation Army. And though he can see himself serving alongside the organization for a long time, he’s glad to play sous-chef, leaving his career path open to God and letting the master chef concoct what’s to come.