The journey that saw Basil Kimbrew go from being a hungry homeless veteran to the chef who cooks for them was long and arduous. After a spell in prison and a bout with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), few people expected him to turn things around.
Yet, that is exactly what he has done by becoming a respected chef and winning a prestigious cooking medal, and the victory could not taste any sweeter.
The 65-year-old chef was recently awarded the the President’s Medallion at the American Culinary Federation’s (ACF) National Convention in New Orleans.
The ACF is the largest professional organization for chef and cooks in the United States. Founded in 1929, the ACF has chapters all across the country and every chapter can nominate one person who is active in the community to receive the president’s medallion each year.
Volunteering in the community has been one of Kimbrew’s main goals ever since he became a chef. His motivation behind cooking and community service stretched back to when he left the Army in the early 1970s.
“I got out of the service,” Kimbrew said. “I didn’t have any direction. I didn’t know what I was doing.”
He was homeless after he left the Army until he successfully ran for the Compton Unified School District board. However, his troubles did not end there. According to Kimbrew, he unknowingly suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which left him unstable.
He ended up in jail for 13 months after he used a school credit card to throw a personal party. Describing it as the time he hit rock bottom, Kimbrew said he knew he had to make some major changes.
“I was in a black hole,” Kimbrew said. “At the time, I didn’t realize I had PTSD, nor did I realize I had ADHD. I told myself once I got out of this black hole, I would do something to help other people that were in a black hole.”
Once he got out of jail, Kimbrew was supported by his friend Darren Parker, chair of the California Democratic Party’s African-American Caucus at the time, and Lizet Angulo, who is now his wife.
“Once I got myself together, my wife cleaned me up,” Kimbrew said. “Darren Parker cleaned me up and a lot of other veterans cleaned me up.”
He went to the Veterans Association and learned more about PTSD and how it was affecting him. Kimbrew knew his life needed a shift in direction, and he decided what he was going to do.
“I went to culinary school, Le Cordon Bleu,” Kimbrew said. “Once I got cleaned up and finally found out what was wrong with me, I decided that I would dedicate my life to going to find and help other people like I was.
“I decided the only thing I was going to do was give back, to go out and feed other people.”
Kimbrew decided to pursue the culinary arts because he was hungry when he was homeless. He likened living on the streets to being a “beggar” and going without food for long periods. For that reason, Kimbrew claims he never charges for his cooking.
“We have a responsibility as people to help those who cannot help themselves,” Kimbrew said. “I was one of those who had the help, so that’s what inspired me to give back.”
Kimbrew has since spent his time cooking at homeless shelters and for community events across the country. He says he organized a group of chefs to cook for those in need in Texas after Hurricane Harvey devastated that area. In the days leading up to the ACF National Convention last month, Kimbrew and other ACF chefs cooked for a homeless shelter there.
Efforts such as those are what earned Kimbrew a nomination for the President’s Medallion, which requires active participation and service in the community.
″(The Presidential Medallion) is considered the highest honor given by the national president of the ACF,” said Competition and Awards Administrator Holly Cangialosi. “It is presented in recognition of outstanding representation of the ACF fundamental principles, including superior strength of character and continued contributions to ACF and/or the culinary industry as a whole.”
According to Kimbrew, he was nominated by his fellow chef, Robert Phillips. Only 15 to 20 people win the medallion every year while twice as many people are nominated.
“The two main eligibility requirements, you have to have been involved, either directly or indirectly, in the culinary industry for a minimum of 10 years,” Cangialosi said. “And you have to regularly volunteer or be involved in some kind of community outreach that is culinary involved and shows the ACF in a good light.”
Kimbrew described winning the award like “going through a time zone” and considering everything it took for him to get there. Kimbrew plans on continuing to serve in the community and help veterans who are struggling like he was. He also is planning a tour where can thank in person everyone who helped him win the medallion.
“I just thought about how my life has changed around because of so many good people,” Kimbrew said. “You just think about all this time it was worth it, from being in trouble and going through everything that I went through to now finally being where people respect me, people have helped me.
“It’s like reaching a pinnacle of your life.”
By Caleb Aguilera