Open Gate Kitchen in Costa Mesa dishes out hope, opportunity

When he lost his dad at the age of 13, Michael Rodriguez looked for ways to fill the void.

He turned to the neighborhood gang for support, and he had already begun experimenting with drugs a short time after. He was selling drugs just to get by.

“Once my dad died when I was 13, I wanted that love,” said Rodriguez, 25, of Stanton. “They all showed me love. I felt loved after my dad died, and I started hanging around with the wrong people, started using drugs, tried heroin after he died.

“I tried it a few times. I wasn’t addicted to it, but I liked the feeling. It kept me away from reality … about losing my dad.”

One thing led to another. By 14, Rodriguez was intermittently homeless. By 17, Rodriguez found a drug he had promised his dad he would never do in methamphetamine.

“I just cracked,” he recalled. “I tried it out. It was bad for a few years.”

Rodriguez said a family friend told him about a culinary school in Costa Mesa called Open Gate International, and it has become his way out.

The program takes aim at equipping people from vulnerable life situations with a skill set to find gainful employment, but also the life skills to make good choices.

Both Rodriguez and his stepbrother, David Lopez, 30, work for Open Gate Kitchen, the restaurant and proving ground for the culinary school’s graduates.

Open Gate International, an Orange County-based culinary school and nonprofit organization, has produced 138 graduates since it was launched in January 2017.

Guarded as one with his past might be, Rodriguez recounted that he would seldom talk to anyone when he entered the program. He learned to love it and said that Open Gate marked his first graduation of any kind, a broad smile showing on his face as he talked about the happiness it brought him.

Rodriguez is married. He has fathered two children from two different women, and he also has a stepdaughter. His outlook on life has improved dramatically. He says he has stayed away from drugs, with his kids serving as the motivation.

“We both lived that life,” Rodriguez said of himself and his stepbrother trying to turn their lives around. “We’re just trying to change now. We’re trying to progress.

“We’re trying to get a house together. From kids doing crimes and going to jail together to now we’re working, getting paychecks, saving.”

Open Gate Kitchen owner and founder Deidre Pujols, the wife of Albert Pujols, at Open Gate Kitchen in Costa Mesa.

Open Gate Kitchen owner and founder Deidre Pujols, the wife of Albert Pujols, at Open Gate Kitchen in Costa Mesa. Pujols’ nonprofit organization takes people from vulnerable life situations and gives them an opportunity to have sustained life success by learning the culinary arts.

(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Human trafficking had been an issue that Deidre Pujols, 44, a champion for vulnerable populations and the wife of Angels baseball star Albert Pujols, wanted to address. Open Gate International grew out of those efforts.

A trip abroad to several countries for Pujols

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Warm fall dishes bring son to the kitchen, table

Friends warned me. People who, before me, had sons. They told me that my son would suddenly and abruptly not want to spend time with me. He would, they said, leave my camp. They said he would first leave me and then leave my husband. At the time it was hard to believe. He was so joyful, so fun, so very excited about the world and all of its gifts.

And then, of course, he did. He found his own interests, his own people, his independence. That was many years ago and I did my best to let him go. It’s good, it’s fine, it’s the way parenting is supposed to be. They grow and push you away and hopefully, if everything is right, they come back.

I’m working on Elliot coming back. He’s 16 now and a pretty laid-back guy. He does what we ask of him. Mow the lawn? Empty the dishwasher? Walk the dog? Yep, yup and did it already. Sometimes, we have to ask twice but it’s not a fight. My husband and I do ask him to hang out with us and to this he almost always says no. He’s got homework. The guys are waiting for him. He’s tired. You know, anything is better than spending time with his parents.

Recently, we’ve been asking him to go for short hikes with us or watch a movie. Heck, I even asked him to sit beside me and learn to knit. That I said knowing there was no way my 16-year-old son would knit. But in asking and showing Elliot my project, I had a few more moments with him.

I’ve also been calling him downstairs when I’m cooking dinner. I’ll place an onion and the chef’s knife on the counter and when he arrives, I point and say, “Chop.” He does it easily, without complaint. I fall in beside him and knowing that teenagers are a bit like scared animals (approach too fast and they run away), I move in slowly. I ask about school, friends, guitar. I keep it to things he likes. I don’t grill him for information; sometimes we just chop quietly.

It’s crazy but I do forget that food is the best thing to bring us together. It’s our common denominator. Elliot doesn’t want to spend an afternoon hiking with Paul and I or even watch a movie. He definitely doesn’t want to knit. But he will chop or stir or whisk, even for a few minutes. If you’ve ever waited for a child who has left your camp, you’ll understand how sweet it is to just stand with him.

What follows are a few things that have come out of my kitchen in recent weeks. Things Elliot has helped me make, and also things his only part in was the eating. I know he would rather have sausage and chicken, pasta and plain salad to vegetables. But while I’m willing to do a lot to bring him back over to

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Surrey’s Kerala Kitchen dishes up authentic, super-spicy, and flavourful fish curry

When James Barber used to write food reviews for the Georgia Straight in the 1980s and 1990s, he enjoyed visiting small family restaurants to educate readers about food from other countries.

In that spirit, I recently travelled to North Surrey to check out the cuisine of Kerala, a state on the southwestern Malabar Coast of India.

Kerala is home to Indian elephants and plenty of coconut trees, but it’s perhaps best known to Vancouverites as the childhood home of Indian writer Arundhati Roy. Her Man Booker Prize–winning The God of Small Things was set in a fishing village in the state.

In fact, fish curry is the heart and soul of Kerala. It’s to Kerala what beef bourguignon is to France.

So when I arrived at Kerala Kitchen, a casual eatery at 103–9386 120 Street, it would have been sacrilegious not to order it.

The chef-owner, Sujith Rajasekharan, told the Straight that he’s created his own recipe that includes turmeric, chili powder, asafoetida, ginger, garlic, fenugreek seeds, curry leaves, tomato, coconut milk, and water.

The fish was incredibly tender and the sauce was super-spicy. In fact, this Kerala fish curry was a flavour bomb, exploding with a combination of tangy, super-hot, and slightly sweet sensations. And it’s unlike the fish curry found in any local Malaysian, Thai, or Indian restaurants in Metro Vancouver.

Chicken 65 is a spicy dish commonly served in South India and Sri Lanka.
Charlie Smith

In fact, Kerala Kitchen’s fish curry ranks up there among the hottest dishes I’ve ever eaten, nearly setting my mouth on fire. That’s the South Indian way—and it’s advisable to order a Coca-Cola or some other cooling beverage in advance.

In comparison, the delicious Chicken 65 dish, which I also ordered, was less spicy, as was the dry-fried Beef Ularthiyathu.

“When people come here, they feel like they’re having something similar to home,” Rajasekharan said.

When asked about the difference between the cuisine of Kerala and food from other parts of South India, Rajasekharan mentioned the extensive use of coconut. In addition, Keralans tend to eat a lot of seafood, like residents of many coastal regions.

Rice is the main staple, and it’s not unusual for people from this part of India to consume this grain three times a day. And rice paddies are a common sight. That’s why naan and roti aren’t as common in Keralan eateries than in North Indian establishments.

Kerala Kitchen is one of many South Asian restaurants along 120th Street in Surrey.
Charlie Smith

Kerala Kitchen and Kairali Village Restaurant (108–12414 82 Avenue, Surrey) are two Keralan dining establishments in Metro Vancouver.

According to Rajasekharan, there are no purely Keralan restaurants in Vancouver, though it’s possible to find South Indian dishes at many locations in the city.

Rajasekharan previously worked for Fairmont hotels before opening Kerala Kitchen nearly three years ago. He hails from the state capital, Thiruvananthapuram, which is near the southern tip of India.

Long ruled by Marxists, Kerala’s literacy rate stood at 96.2

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Cooking homemade dishes from the heart

FRAZIER PARK, Calif. — Tucked away in the mountains of Frazier Park sits The Red Dot Vegetarian Kitchen, and their philosophy consists of cooking homemade meals from the heart. Their cooking inspiration is a mixture of comfort American food with an Indian, Asian and Middle Eastern influence.

“It was all started at the basis of just serving with love, to feed. We’re here to feed. So, to be able to grow and do that as we have has been an enormous blessing for us,” said Daniel Schwartz, manager of the The Red Dot Vegetarian Kitchen.

Some of their most popular dishes are tofu curry, pad Thai, pakora and a falafel pita sandwich. They also bake their own breads like sourdough and wood fire nan.

“We do everything fresh from scratch. The menu has evolved over the years as we’ve evolved,” said Schwartz.

The Red Dot Kitchen also sells a variety of their homemade items like their sweet tomato chutney and Indian savory pancake mix.

And no customer leaves without a Thai style banana, which they say is like their fortune cookie. A unique signature to say thank you and give to those who have come through their doors. Daily they also hold an offering for the community free of charge from 5:30 p.m. to close.

“We wanted to do something that was just our way of saying thanks to the community for giving us the opportunity to be here,” said Harmanpreet Singh, executive chef of The Red Dot Vegetarian Kitchen.

The kitchen serves a traditional kitchari, which is a mixture of lintels and grains.

“That’s what food should be. It’s an offering, it’s a blessing and something that everyone should share,” said Singh.

Their kitchen is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week, from 6a.m. to 9p.m. daily for takeout, curbside and patio dining. To see their menu head to their website here.

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Homefront: Use garden veggies if you’ve got ’em in these easy, meat-free dishes

Jean Stover of North Berwick doubles the cheese and uses whatever kind she has on hand when making this recipe for Quinoa, Broccoli and Cheese Casserole. Photo courtesy of Jean Stover

“When I was out of work during the beginning of the COVID shutdown, I had a lot of (vegetables) and grains on hand. Then when the stores started running out of certain foods, people were buying the grains. This time of year, the fresh garden veggies are especially nice in these recipes. These are easy, and ingredients are easy to find right now. Both are from “The Vegetarian 5-Ingredient Gourmet,” by Nava Atlas. I double the cheese (in the first recipe) and I use whatever cheese I have on hand. (For the second recipe), I used black beans, fresh corn from the farmers market, and fresh tomatoes and shallots from my garden.”

– JEAN STOVER, North Berwick

Quinoa, Broccoli and Cheese Casserole

Serves 6

1 ½ cups quinoa, rinsed

2 tablespoons light olive oil

1 large onion

2 medium broccoli crowns, cut into bite-size pieces

1 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese

Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Bring 3 cups of water to simmer in a saucepan. Stir in the quinoa, cover and simmer gently until water is absorbed, about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat oil in a large skillet. Add the onion and saute until golden. Add broccoli and about ¼ cup water. Cover and steam until a little more than tender crisp, 5-7 minutes.

In a bowl, combine everything with half the cheese. Season and stir well. Transfer to lightly oiled casserole. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese. Bake until golden, 20-25 minutes. Cool for 5 minutes before serving with avocado salad and warm tortillas.

Pinto Beans and Corn can be made with canned tomatoes or fresh ones from the garden. Photo courtesy of Jean Stover

Pinto Beans and Corn

Jean Stover likes to serve this with rice, tortilla chips, avocado and lime slices. She has adapted the recipe slightly (which explains why there are more than 5 ingredients) from “The Vegetarian 5-Ingredient Gourmet.”

Serves 4-6

1 shallot, finely chopped

2 cups cooked fresh corn or frozen corn, thawed

1 tablespoon olive oil

Two (16-ounce) cans pinto or pink beans, drained and rinsed

One (14- to 16-ounce) can low-sodium or Mexican-style stewed tomatoes, chopped, with liquid

1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced or mild chilies

2 teaspoons ground cumin

Saute the shallots and the corn in olive oil in a large skillet for several minutes until the shallot softens, then add the remaining ingredients. Stir and bring to a simmer. Cover the mixture and simmer on low heat for 15 minutes.

Serve in shallow bowls.

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