Traci Calderon at Atrium Kitchen in Pike Place Market “backed into” life as a restaurateur here in Seattle. She started Atrium Kitchen by providing free and more importantly, nutritious meals to seniors and others in need in the Market neighborhood. She also made a living as a caterer. But then in March of 2020, when the pandemic hit – she watched it all disappear. Just like that. What she did next is one of the reasons she’s such a valuable culinary partner is the Savor Life Save a Life campaign.
Traci: So March 3th or 4th was going to be our next Nourished Neighborhood in 2020. Obviously, we could not do that. So I took about a week where I was watching my event business just disintegrate, completely gone. I sort of backed into it, I have a degree in journalism, worked in public relations, and then started caring for my mom who had Alzheimer’s. In caring for my mom, I was preparing meals for she and my dad so they could have home-cooked meals. And I realized that there’s other people that need that type of service. So, I grew up in a household where food was always the reason why we gathered, it was very natural to transition into becoming a private chef. And that’s how I originally started my business was as a private chef, became…I worked for one family in Silicon Valley and then became a personal chef, had multiple clients, relocated to Seattle, started cooking for the one person I knew here when I moved here. He wanted to lose weight, so I started doing his three meals a day and his snacks. He was losing weight. His buddies were like, “Dude, what are you doing?” And all of a sudden I had four bachelor’s I was cooking for.
John: And they were eating, I mean, losing weight and eating?
Traci: And eating. Eating really high-quality food. So that’s how I started.
John: So, Atrium Kitchen, what’s the idea behind it? Everybody’s got…you have to have more than just the fact that you serve food, you have to…you have to sort of be making a statement. What is the statement at Atrium Kitchen?
Traci: So I’ll tell you a little bit about the history of Atrium Kitchen. It was built out by Pike Place Market in 2012. The market built it as a demonstration kitchen. They manage the space, I would rent it to teach cooking classes, and also to do a market-to-table tour where I take guests through the market, we pick up ingredients, I share some of the history of the market, come back here and make a meal together. So they’re really visitors to the market. Even people from Seattle always learn something new and they get to experience the market in a different way. So I did that until 2017. The market reached out and asked if I was interested in taking over the space as their commercial tenant. They were no longer interested in running this kitchen. I said, “Yes.” And then I figured out the details. I had started renting the kitchen in 2013, I think it was to do the classes. February 2017, had not taken over the kitchen yet but I wanted to do a community meal where I could bring people together, feature food from the market. I’m a caterer, I know how to make a full meal, so why not bring people together for that meal? So, I created Nourished Neighborhood.
Nourished Neighborhood started as a once-a-month free meal program and it was open to anyone and everyone, so seniors who live in one of the 500 units of senior housing here, people visiting the market, people that work downtown or work in the market, anyone, everyone was welcome. And I had a ton of volunteers who would come and help me cook the food and then we would serve the food. At our peak, we served over 300 free meals in one hour and a half. So it was a great way for people to get together. Our last lunch was February 2020. So March 3th or 4th was going to be our next Nourished Neighborhood in 2020. Obviously, we could not do that. So, I took about a week where I was watching my event business just disintegrate, completely gone. And I honestly felt sorry for myself for a few days and decided that was not going to serve me. I was hearing from some of the seniors who I would feed at that free lunch that they were being told to shelter in place. They were not part of Meals on Wheels, they weren’t part of the food bank. At the beginning of the pandemic those places had waitlists. So, I put the word out to my friends’ own restaurants, they spread the word. Restaurants had to shutter. They had perishable food, they were more than happy to donate it. I rounded up a few volunteers and we started preparing free meals for seniors. To date, we’ve served over 40,000 free meals supported 100% by donation. This was the kindness of strangers. They had heard about what we were doing. I was too busy cooking, I didn’t have time to go get grants or any of that.
John: How did you stay in business?
Traci: I wasn’t in business. I was running a free meal program supported by people making donations.
John: I feel very optimistic and yet cautiously optimistic about where we are right now. We’re not wearing masks. And just a few weeks ago, everybody did. And I feel like we’re starting to emerge from it. Do you feel that same thing here?
Traci: I do. You said the word cautiously optimistic, or words. I am cautiously optimistic. I know within a couple of weeks, we could be having to cancel in-person events again, we could be having to wear masks again. At this point, we’re two years in, I’m pretty flexible. I can just roll with it. What’s the word? Adapt. That is, I know that whatever comes I’ll handle. I was thinking originally that when, you know, things were returning to somewhat normal, I would stop the… Because we’re doing these free meals weekly, in addition to ramping the business back up. And I was thinking originally that okay, “I’ll go back to the free once a month lunch.” My seniors, and I call them mine, I mean, they own a little piece of my heart now, they are still in need. You know, they’ve aged two more years. The food that they’re getting at, God bless them, food banks and there’s other centers where they get one meal a day, it’s not the quality of food that we’re doing. It’s not to say it’s bad food, it’s just this is fresh-made food like I would make for my family for dinner, and to be able to continue that service. I did have one of my seniors, she shared with me that she had a birthday and I think…I forget how old she is, but she said that because she aged, her social security increased, which then put her in a higher income bracket, which meant she lost her food benefits. So she’s getting I think it was like $90 more a month and…or no, it was $25 a month, X more, which put her in the next bracket, and she lost $90 a month of food benefits. So when I hear things like that, why wouldn’t I continue this service?
John: So, what drew you to the Savor Life, Save A Life campaign? It just feels like a right fit for you.
Traci: It is the right fit. So we have a motto, Nourished 100%. Nourished 100% to me is not just about healthy, nourishing food, it is about connection. And that connection…
John: Somebody is saying hi to you.
Traci: Yes, that’s Chef John. That connection is really, really important. And then you take it a step further with Savor Life, Save A Life, blood is what nourishes our mind and our body. We get that healthy blood through food. So it’s the next step. And when I heard about this campaign, “Yes, sign me up.” I am happy to do what I can. For me, to be a blood donor…I’ve had people in my life that have needed blood transfusions. They’ve needed the blood donation, and I am so grateful that there were people that had donated.
Interviewer: So specifically you had a family member that blood donation is personal for you.
Traci: It is personal. My mother-in-law had two accidents. One, she had fallen…she was on a bus trip, fell, bruised her hip. I went down to make sure she was okay. I looked at her hip and her entire leg, which is purple…I made her go to the doctor. She needed blood. And then a few years later she had another fall, broke her shoulder, and they did the surgery, but before they would let her go, she needed, I think, it was 2 pints of blood. And just knowing that there was someone that was able to make it possible for her to still be alive.
John: Somebody she never knew, never met, she would never meet.
Traci: Right. And she had…her name is Gertrude, Gertrude had a saying, “That it’s better to give with warm hands than cold hands,” and when you’re making a blood donation, you’re giving with warm hands. The way that I see it, organ donation, which my father, when he perished, he was an organ donor. And that’s where you’re giving with cold hands, but you’re still allowing someone to live a life that matters. I look around and a lot of my seniors, they’re in and out of hospitals, they have those needs as well. So it’s one thing to be able to provide food, which is nourishment, to provide connection…we all have blood, let’s do what we can to help nourish in that way. And the great thing is, you know, our bodies replenish. So it’s something that just keeps going.
John: So let me know when…your next appointment, just let me know and I’ll be there. What do you like making the most here? I mean, farm to table, this place is just known for…yeah, one of the signs above, right at the corner, says, “Meet the producer.” It’s known for produce that’s brought in, and then places like this where you prepare it for people. What’s your favorite thing to make?
Traci: I’m realizing that seafood has become my specialty. I grew up deep-sea fishing with my dad. I lived in California, we’d go out, Monterey Bay, go salmon fishing, lingcod, just being out in the sea, and I think it was all those years ago, I won’t tell you how many, the seed was planted, and to become a chef later in life, and to naturally gravitate towards seafood…I love showing people the easy way it is to prepare. Seafood can be very intimidating, especially if people did…I get people from the Midwest, they’re like, “Yeah, we don’t know.” But I love the folks that take the market-to-table tour in class because they’re open to experiencing it. Seafood really is one of my favorite things to make, and being able to introduce guests that I’m taking on tour to the fishmongers who I know by name, to the produce suppliers, to some of the small farm or the day stall vendors like Urban Farm. Farmer Ras Peynado, I mean, he literally has an urban farm. He grows Scotch bonnets and habaneros, he makes amazing hot sauces. I just love that aspect of Pike Place Market.
John: Anything else that I haven’t asked that you feel like you’d like to add, besides please donate blood.
Traci: I think that we can all make a donation of blood if we’re able. That changes lives. And when you have the opportunity to change a life for good, take that opportunity.