Cristina Martinez and Ben Miller's restaurant has drawn national praise. In sharing her food, she also shares her story.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Cristina Martinez and Ben Miller's restaurant has drawn national praise. In sharing her food, she also shares her story.

A collaboration for ‘radical’ change

Cristina Martínez and Ben Miller of South Philly Barbacoa have long been among Philly’s leaders in cooking for social justice. But as the COVID-19 crisis dramatically worsened unemployment and food insecurity, they transformed their second restaurant into a bold new model solution: The People’s Kitchen at El Compadre, where 1,000 free meals a week are cooked for those in need.

“I’m trying to create the most radical concept I can,” Miller says. “We have so much poverty in this city.”

The People’s Kitchen has been a collaboration, initiated by chef Aziza Young as a series of pop-ups that looped-in numerous chefs (Mani Thillai, Gary McCoy, Donnell Jones, among others). Chef José Andrés' nonprofit World Central Kitchen provided initial funding before grants and local donations picked up. It’s also been given a political mission to organize for policy change with the 215 People’s Alliance.

More than 200 volunteers have stepped up, and over 33,000 meals have been served since March. But coordinator Carly Pourzand insists the goal is broader: “How can we embrace this moment of getting meals to people who really need them, but also support change around the root issues that are leading to food insecurity?”

Cristina Martinez clears an area in an urban farm plot at 26th and Dickinson Streets in July 2020.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Cristina Martinez clears an area in an urban farm plot at 26th and Dickinson Streets in July 2020.

One key achievement has been their cultivation of an urban farm at Church of the Redeemer Baptist in Point Breeze, a predominantly African American congregation that is among the program’s many diverse recipients.

It has already provided the bushy purslane that Miller and Martínez wilted with salsa verde into tangy verdolagas and fresh favas over tender stewed beef and rice. But Miller cannot wait for more. Peppers. Wild asparagus. Nutritious mulukhiyah (mallow) leaves. And a lasting impact: “We’re going to plug cold-weather crops straight into the restaurant, grow this project, and see how far we can go with it.”

For more information on how to support the People’s Kitchen at El Compadre, visit 215pa.com/peoples-kitchen.