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Tampa chef trades fine dining for serving the homeless

Chef Daniel Graves became the Executive Chef at Trinity Cafe in November and is now serving 45,000 meals per week.

TAMPA, Fla. — Chef Daniel Graves spent decades in the fine dining world working at top resort kitchens, hotels, and restaurants around the nation. 

Six months ago, thanks to a tug on his heart to help others, he slipped into a new role as the Executive Chef at Trinity Café.

“For me it’s all about service and giving back and I really enjoy the work that I do,” said Graves.

Trinity Café is a restaurant concept conceived in 2001. It has served over 1.5 million meals with “dignity, compassion, love, and respect” according to its website. The most common clientele are people who have experienced homelessness.

“When a little child comes up to you and thank you for the food is an extremely humbling experience and to be honest with you, it took me a long time getting used to that type of reward,” said Graves. “It’s extremely humbling and it’s a level of humility that I’ve never really felt before and that for me is where I wanted to go in my career.”

Typically, Trinity Café would prepare 500 meals per day on average. That number has spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic. Graves and his staff are pumping out close to 1,500 meals per day at each of the four Trinity Café locations across Tampa Bay.

The workload has been challenging, even for an experienced chef like Graves.

“We’re doing 45,000 meals per week right now,” said the Chicago native. “To achieve that 45,000 is nothing short of amazing.”

On May 1, Trinity Café surpassed the 100,000 “to-go” meal mark since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Trinity Café partnered with Feeding Tampa Bay in January 2019 to provide meals to as many food-insufficient people as possible. The goal, says Graves, is to have nobody going hungry in Tampa Bay by 2025.

“He’s a great guy. I’m learning a lot from him,” said Jason Aust, who was homeless three years ago and now works at Trinity doing everything from cooking to dishes.

The world of fine dining served Graves well but he’s finding his new role is just as fulfilling. His white tablecloth and fancy dinners at well-known places like Harrah’s and Nicks’ Fish Market in Chicago, to Malio’s in Tampa, have been replaced by to-go bags and thankful smiles. It’s a trade-off he’s happy to have made after more than 30 years of professional cooking.

“It’s rewarding. I mean it’s absolutely one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done,” said Graves.

“As a program of Feeding Tampa Bay, Trinity Cafe has begun the exciting transition to becoming a “Community Empowerment Center” – creating full service, hunger relief solutions that begin around the table”, says its website. “Guests enjoy a hot, plated meal around the table, but now have access to prepared to-go meals, client choice food pantries, fresh produce pantries, and SNAP registration assistance.

“Trinity Cafe’s model and kitchen will be the centerpiece of expansion across Feeding Tampa Bay’s 10-county service area. Together, our goal is to provide meals for today, meals for tomorrow, and meals for a lifetime.”

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