ST. PAUL, MN — Jeff Ansorge is a trim 40-year-old with buzzed hair and sideburns that are mostly silver and thick eyebrows that are mostly black. He’s a quiet, t-shirted Midwestern guy who can be found on any weekday hard at work in the Salvation Army soup kitchen in northeast St. Paul, Minnesota.
Every weekday morning, Jeff fills an echoing, cinder-block gymnasium with folding chairs and utility tables as he runs the lunch preparations in the kitchen off to the side. Before the day is done, he (and a volunteer or two) will serve between 140 and 180 lunches to a single-file line of the poorest residents in the community.
After twelve months, Jeff’s work is becoming routine. Managing the menu, ordering food, unloading pallets of food, coordinating his volunteers — all part of his daily juggle of set up, serving, cleaning, wiping down tables, stacking chairs, cleaning the kitchen, and taking out the trash when the lunch session is over.
It’s a daily routine Jeff enjoys, which is remarkable for a man who was, until recently, one of the highest paid chefs in the Twin Cities.
The Culinary Spark
Jeff was born in rural Minnesota and raised in rural Wisconsin by a devout Roman Catholic family. For much of his boyhood he served six days a week in his church and dreamed of becoming a priest.
Raised on a steady diet of Midwestern casseroles, his culinary interests were first triggered by a family trip to Disney World where he encountered a five-course French meal. The experience was so profound it sparked in him an inextinguishable new desire for the world of culinary art. Jeff began cooking. He cooked for the family, he cooked in home economics class in high school, and he watched the cooks in the local restaurant business while working as a busboy and dishwasher.
In high school Jeff entered and won a statewide recipe contest sponsored by one of the top culinary schools in America — Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island. His recipe (a take on ocean perch), earned him a trip to compete in the national competition at Johnson & Wales. He won scholarships and decided to attend the school, 1,200 miles away from home.
Jeff excelled in college, and his success fueled his passion for cooking. The freedom away from home was liberating, and it opened him to all the blessings and all the temptations of college life. After his first year, Jeff fell into vices that would plague him until his early 30s — drunkenness, addictions, and drugs.
Despite his vices, Jeff continued to excel in his culinary career path. In part, he supported himself through four years of college by working, first at a local Subway near campus, then later by teaching at the school. After college he became a prep cook with The Capital Grille, an upscale steakhouse on the rise in Providence. The timing was perfect. As Jeff worked up the ranks to sous-chef the company began expanding to its over forty locations around the country. Jeff was tasked to open new restaurants.
To the Breaking Point
Jeff returned to the Midwest in 1997 when he opened The Capital Grille in downtown Minneapolis, a five-star, New York style chophouse and sophisticated men’s club, with an ambiance of mahogany, leather, chandeliers, and thousands of wine bottles.
It was there he met his wife, a hostess. They were married in 2002 and had their first child in 2005.
The restaurant life was exciting, but by the time he became a father in 2005, Jeff was burned out from the demanding schedule of an executive chef. He left the kitchen, though not for long. After leaving The Capital Grille he eventually made his way back to the kitchen at a jazz club steakhouse in downtown Minneapolis. But when the Capital Grille lost their head chef, they enticed him back with six-digits’ worth of salary, bonuses, and stocks.
He made the move, but as the months and years passed, a deep void in his life became increasingly visible to his wife and his family. He was depressed, and began to rely on antidepressants. He no longer smoked pot or cigarettes after his first child was born in 2005, but he drank sporadically at night after work. His marriage grew increasingly unstable, and though he tried to fill the void in his life with work, money, alcohol, and pornography, the emptiness grew. A breaking point was near.
The Crash — And Awakening
Late in 2010, Jeff’s life really crumbled.
“I crashed with my depression. I wanted a divorce. In the fall of 2010 two of my brother-in-laws confronted me. ‘You cannot do this,’ they said. They came at me from a biblical standpoint. They would confront me with Scripture over the phone, then I would hang up and my wife and I would laugh and talk about how crazy they were.
“One day they traveled from Iowa and Milwaukee, sat me down in my kitchen, and asked me about basic Christian truths: Do I believe in Jesus? Do I believe that God created the world and Adam and Eve? And I said, yes, absolutely. They both told me about their lives and explained spiritual warfare we face in this world. The next morning in my car I turned on the AM radio station and heard a preacher say word for word the same thing my brother-in-law said the night before. That’s when it happened — God opened my eyes.”
Jeff always thought of himself as religious, but he didn’t talk about it. Faith wasn’t a hang-up when he married his wife (an agnostic).
But now he had experienced the regenerating grace of God in his life. Never a reader, Jeff got a copy of the Bible and read the New Testament for the first time. He read it in ten days. His new zeal was becoming obvious, but his newborn life only drove a wedge deeper into his marriage. One month later, his wife asked him to move out, filed divorce papers, and ended their nine-year marriage.
Finding Salvation Army
As the months passed in his new life in Christ, Jeff found himself less and less interested in maintaining the lifestyle at The Capital Grille. The company had grown into a mammoth corporation and Jeff was ready to move on, permanently.
Having experienced God’s grace, Jeff turned to the non-profit food industry where he could integrate his love of food and his burgeoning desire to share the gospel. He submitted his résumé to the Salvation Army and several other non-profit organizations. After a few long months of silence and waiting, he was contacted, interviewed, and hired.
Jeff left a restaurant that averages a bill of $80 per person to serve lunches at a cost of $0.63. A lot of people thought he was crazy to make the move. But even making $100,000 a year, Jeff didn’t own his house or cars — he couldn’t escape his debts. When he left The Capital Grille, he decided to sell off his employee stocks to pay off his cars and his house and all his debts.
“Now I make less than 40% of what I once did. I’m on the clock. I get paid by the hour. But I’m out of debt. I own my house and cars. It was worth it.”
So what’s an average day for Jeff now?
He runs the hot lunch program, and during the school year he cooks for an at-risk youth program (snack and dinner). “An average day for me includes menu planning, ordering food, sorting food donations, putting bills into spreadsheets, cooking, organizing and managing volunteers and community service workers, and then offering a biblical devotion and meals to the clients who come through. I help with Friday food giveaways; we move 3,000–5,000 pounds of food for people to have with them over the weekend. I mop, I clean, I set up tables, I set up chairs, I take out the garbage. I’m the only paid person here.”
Nothing is below his pay grade — sometimes, when volunteers don’t show, he pulls off lunches by himself.
Jeff’s dramatic transition from a five-star kitchen to a Salvation Army gym raises two questions.
First, why not remain in the high-end food industry and be a witness for Christ there? “In the restaurant industry I cannot go out in the dining room, stand there and preach the gospel to everyone,” he said. “But now I can. I feel better utilized among people who are homeless or have low incomes, and feel I have a greater good to offer here.”
But there’s a second question. Given his Roman Catholic background, is all this non-profit work his penance to make up for a previous life he regrets?
“Not at all,” he says without hesitation. “That never entered my mind. When I was a kid and I would do something wrong, I would confess, and the priest would assign seven ‘Hail Marys,’ or whatever. I know what penance is, but this is not penance. I’m doing this because I was reborn, because something tangible happened inside of me because of the gospel, something that I can define and feel and pinpoint the time and events in my life surrounding it.”
The joy on his face proved the point.
This soup-kitchen cook serves out of a profound identity transformation. “My identity was determined by my job: by my status, the money I was making, and the house and cars I could buy. Now, my identity is in Christ: I am a follower of Christ, a child of God. My identity is now someone who seeks to help people and to spread the gospel. I’m doing what I love, for people I love, for the person I love — Jesus Christ.”
More Than Food
After a year, Jeff is starting to see a return on investment in the lives he serves. “I’ve seen so many people come through the door that are hard. When I first got here there was one guy in particular, I would ask his name and he would tell me, ‘I just came here for a meal, that’s all.’ And that was it. He ate and left. Months later now this same guy comes in and we chat and engage in conversation. I have seen this tangible life change, knowing it happened by being a reflection of Jesus.”
Jeff has been changed this year, too. “I came from working in restaurants all my life. Very driven. High speed. All about organization, and making things as streamlined and efficient as possible. It took me six or seven months to wind down from that. When I got here I was all about streamlining, efficiency, changing things, making it good — so focused on the food. At the same time I was leading the devotional. But over time God has opened my eyes to see the food is secondary.”
Avoiding the Spotlight
Except for the man who took his application and hired him, Jeff’s résumé was a secret when he started at the Salvation Army (his preference). But his story soon got out, spread, and was made public when a local television station featured him. His volunteers now call him “Chef Jeff.”
After his first year, he is happy, and says the move to The Salvation Army was one of his best life decisions.
It’s a story filled with sin and grace, and it’s a story Jeff is willing to share, if you ask him. But he’s not eager to share his private or public story. “I’d rather be tucked away,” he says in his tucked-away office. He says he looks forward to a day when the reporters and the spotlight leave him alone, when he is no longer given stewardship and community awards, when he appears on no more Salvation Army posters, or in magazine articles, or in blog posts, when he can quietly continue the mission he has taken up to the poor who show up every day to his gym-turned-dining room, to fill their hungry stomachs with food that perishes, and — more importantly — to offer hungry souls the all-satisfying bread of Jesus Christ that endures for all eternity (John 6:27, 35).
Previous biographical features by Tony Reinke: