September 7, 2010 | 7:00am
Ken Grippo has been homeless since January 2009. Before then, he lived in Manhattan in a two-bedroom apartment making $85,000 a year as a chef.
Then he moved to Florida and within a week was living in the COSAC Homeless Shelter in Hollywood. To pay his "rent," he was put to work in the kitchen.
Since then, Grippo has been able to move out of the shelter and into a house owned by COSAC, but he continues to work as the shelter's resident chef.
Clean Plate was allowed to spend some time in his territory over Labor Day weekend, watching him cook for the dinner rush and listening to his story.
On Saturday. September 4, Grippo served stuffed shells, lasagna, brocolli, and garlic bread to more than 150 people -- some of whom live at the shelter and others who live off-property. The seven entrée trays he had prepared during that day were gone within an hour.
"You have to cook in masses. The big thing is preparing ahead of time," Grippo said. He then pulled his backup entrée, barbecue chicken, out of the oven.
He used to work in restaurants where it was easy to feed 150 people in three hours. Here? Not so much. That's why he wakes up at 4 a.m. every day -- to wake up his staff members, make them coffee, and start preparing the day's food.
Unlike in his high-end restaurant days, Grippo can't create any menu. He's limited to the donations the shelter receives from local hospitals and food banks.
Peggy, a three-year resident at the shelter, raved about his cooking.
"Before Ken, the food was bland. They made the same thing over and over. Now people get excited about dinner."
Grippo, who creates dishes based on the recipes of his Italian mother and grandmother, thinks they deserve the flavor.
After spending several hours observing, we could tell he cares about his customers. Grippo spent time chatting with the residents, making sure they enjoyed the food.
We asked about dietary needs, because someone has to have them.
"Sure," he said. "We have a guy here who's a vegetarian, so I always have something for him."
The stuffed shells were meatless that night. Grippo also doesn't put salt in his dishes because it's a common allergy.
COSAC is known as a place that won't turn away someone in need. Grippo has the same attitude.
"If someone comes in hungry, any time of the day, we always feed them. We'll never leave someone hungry."