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On Trust and Tacos: Father Gregory Boyle Awarded James Beard Humanitarian of the Year

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Homeboy pastries cakes
From flan to tres leches and red velvet cakes, Homegirl cafe serves pastries with new and traditional flair.

The James Beard Foundation announced in late January that Father Gregory Boyle, S.J., founder and executive director of Homeboy Industries, will be receiving the James Beard Humanitarian of the Year award. According to the official announcement: “ the award is given to an individual or organization whose work in the realm of food has improved lives of others and benefited society at large.” The award ceremony will take place at the Lyric Opera of Chicago on May 2. 

However, Father Boyle’s journey to this prestigious accolade from the “Oscars” of the food world began right here in Los Angeles.

Born in L.A., Boyle attended and graduated from St. Brendan School and Loyola High School. Afterwards, he entered the order of the Society of Jesus or the Jesuits. In 1984, Boyle was ordained into the priesthood. He also earned degrees in English as well as Master degrees in Theology and Sacred Theology. In addition, he’s taught at his alma mater Loyola High School. 

Boyle’s early work in the largely Hispanic community of Boyle Heights would find him riding an old beach cruiser to housing projects and talking with residents, especially youth. He also served as Pastor of Dolores Mission in the neighborhood from 1986 to 1992. 

The seeds of Homeboy Industries and Boyle’s focus on gang-intervention were planted around 1988 when Boyle and others in the community created alternatives to the gang lifestyle by establishing a grade school, a day care program, and job placement services. 

Homeboy group 900
Started in Boyle Heights, Homeboy Industries serves high-risk, formerly gang-involved men and women with free services and programs.

But it wasn’t until the 1992 civil disturbance in Los Angeles following the Rodney King verdict that Homeboy Bakery officially open. Since then Homeboy Industries has expanded its “social enterprise businesses” around L.A. If you venture around the city, you’ll see evidence of these food-focused enterprises, including Homegirl Cafe & Catering in Chinatown, Homeboy at LAX, Homeboy Diner at City Hall, and the Homeboy at farmers markets all over town. 

Although Boyle’s recent James Beard recognition honors him for his culinary endeavors, what his clients and employees really appreciate from him are his compassion, expansive heart, and trustworthiness. When men and women involved with Homeboy Industries speak of Boyle (or Father G or G Dog, his favorite nicknames), they use words like “trust”, “father”, and “love”―these were concepts often missing from the clients’ lives. 

37 year-old Miguel Lugo is a Homeboy trainee who is 11 months into the 18 months employment program. He explained that when he came to Homeboy Industries he wasn’t looking for a job, he was looking for help. Not long ago, Lugo was released from prison after serving an 18 year sentence. When he reentered society, he found that things had changed. He said, “The best way I can explain this is that I came into a new planet. The world moved too fast for me when I first got out.” But that wasn’t the biggest challenge for Lugo. “Learning how to trust people. Learning how to trust myself was the most difficult thing after being in prison,” he said.

It was Boyle’s natural gift of inspiring trust that won Lugo over. “Having Father G’s number, you can call him at any time and reach out for help,” he explained. The real metamorphosis, however, takes place when the helpless become the helper. “It’s not just about asking for help, but it’s also about helping other people. How good it feels to be able to help someone else. Being part of the other side of this world, you get so much negativity,” he said, “It’s never about helping someone else, it’s about what you can take from someone else. And [now] to be able to give back, there’s nothing more rewarding than that.”

Here Father Boyle talks food and social entrepreneurship in an interview with KCET.

Are you a foodie?

Boyle: I kind of am, actually. I’m just hoping I can parlay this into being on “Chopped”. The odd thing is that you ask homies what they watch on TV. You’d think ESPN or something. Food channel [is what they watch].

Now that your sphere of influence has broadened with this James Beard award, and more chefs may be aware of you, do you think you’ll use this notoriety to work with chefs? 

Boyle: We’ve already have had relationships with chefs like [Thomas] Keller who hires some of our people as interns at Bouchon. Several had been offered a position to stay. The others come back. A woman from the cafe and a man from our bakery are there now. That’s been a relationship that’s been going for 3 or 4 years. 

Roy Choi has been lauded for LocoL and what he’s doing in Watts. Do you think this is a good model for Homeboy as far as revolutionizing fast food in underserved neighborhoods? 

Boyle: Yeah, I don’t know that much about it, but it seems like a great idea. We’re always looking for things. We’re also looking at a food product like Paul Newman’s Own salad dressing or something that can be manufactured in a big way, able to support this place in a way in terms of profit.

How much of Homeboy’s budget is funded by the revenues from the various businesses? 

Boyle: About 40% of what we need comes from the businesses, so 60% we have to raise. But we’re inching our way to 50%.

Favorite chef or restaurant?

Boyle: I love Downtown. When I was little, Downtown was a ghost town. And now Downtown is a downtown. So I love a lot of the restaurants here. There’s no need to go to the Westside anymore. There’s a taco place on 7th Street.  They have the most amazing thing I’ve ever eaten. Blue tortillas with clams, and lardo. Do you know what lardo is? Oh, my God. It’s the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten in my life. You’ve died and gone to heaven.

Homeboy storefront 900
Homegirl Cafe, located in Chinatown, offers customers fresh and tasy Mexican fusion meals and its employees an opportunity for a new start. 

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