In 2012, Jonathan Merrill had reached what he thought was the pinnacle of a cook’s career, earning the title of executive chef at a wood-fired restaurant in Seattle. But the death of his father caused him to re-evaluate his goals, to think hard about the life of a chef and how cooking for other people could be about much more than customers paying for expensive meals in restaurants.
He still had a desire to learn about food, though, and was still drawn to the heat of the kitchen, so he grabbed a backpack and set out on a three-year journey during which he staged (worked for free, for those not familiar with restaurant jargon or the concept of, well, working for free) at nearly fifty restaurants in the United States, Europe and Latin America.
Merrill worked in a mom-and-pop Croatian eatery and ended up teaching the owners how to operate more efficiently; he toured Italy and cooked with the seasons; he spanned the Western Hemisphere by working his way from Alaska to Central America and eventually down to Brazil. “I was backpacking with my chef’s knives,” he recalls. “I ended up knocking on the door of D.O.M. in São Paulo, speaking no Portuguese.”
Along the way, he wrote a column for Poached Jobs (an online food-service jobs board) about how other chefs could follow a similar path.
During his two-month tenure at D.O.M., which has made the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list several times, he realized how little money he needed when unencumbered by rent, bills and other modern expenses, and he began to hatch the idea of starting a different kind of business, one that eschewed the trappings of standard restaurants while serving people chef-quality food cheaply and funneling extra food and profits toward people more in need.
Work (the kind that came with a paycheck) eventually brought Merrill to Denver, where he had friends in the industry. It was here that he started thinking in earnest about Rage Against the Sandwich, the name he had chosen for his concept — a name that captured his cynicism about the restaurant industry, especially the rampant food waste, brutal work schedules and pitiful compensation. “All you need is a kitchen and a hungry customer,” he explains. “Everything else is just hospitality fluff.”
Of course, Merrill’s not the first person to think about launching a nonprofit restaurant or finding ways to get excess food into the mouths of the homeless community. SAME Cafe allows customers to work in the kitchen in exchange for lunch, and We Don’t Waste collects unused food from large food-service companies to help feed those in need. But Rage Against the
Sandwich has a slightly different model, one that Merrill thinks will also provide work-life balance for those doing the cooking.
His idea is based on annual membership fees to fund the basic operation, along with payments for delivered lunches. “Look at Toms Shoes; you buy a pair of shoes, they give a pair away,” the chef points out. “Why can’t we do that with sandwiches?”
But a one-to-one sandwich exchange is just the beginning. He has already piloted the program with some group lunch orders, recently catering a party for 200 people and having enough left over to give away food to another 250. He and his friends deliver meals to homeless individuals in parks and along the Platte River, dodging police officers who might issue citations for nothing more than giving away food without proper permits.
The standard model for opening any food-service operation is to seek licensing and approval from the city for a kitchen that passes current health and safety codes. Merrill isn’t so sure that’s really needed, though he realizes that he’ll eventually have to follow the regulations if he doesn’t want to have Rage Against the Sandwich get shut down. But the idealist in him sees things differently, and he’s saddened by how hard it is to legally give away food to people who are hungry. “It’s about fighting to make food a human right in your community,” he says. “These are the questions I ask myself: Can we just stop thinking that all restaurants have to be the same? What is the power of food in our society? When will food be like air and water?”
The ultimate vision of Rage Against the Sandwich calls for a multi-city network of houses where chefs can live and be provided with the basic amenities while they cook. “There must be four or five chefs in any large city who are tired of standard restaurants who would be willing to do something like this,” he says.
But first, he’ll test the model in Denver. Merrill wants to purchase a house with a good kitchen and several bedrooms where Rage Against the Sandwich chefs would live and work. They’d get free room and board as well as a living wage, and in turn would produce food a step above the standard delivery fare for Rage club members, who would pay $10 a year, plus the cost of their food orders. Merrill anticipates charging founding members $20 to cover their membership for the next two years, which would provide extra startup money to help buy the first house. After that, money made from the first Rage Against the Sandwich would go toward opening new branches in other cities.
The first step, he says, is obtaining 501(c)(3) status as a nonprofit organization. He’s been making food out of his apartment, but for now his operation is small and run like a club, so he doesn’t think he’s violating any commercial restaurant regulations. He’ll soon be joined by a chef he met in Sao Paulo, he says, and together they will start planning more events in May and canvassing local businesses to “draw people in and make them our foundational members.”
It’s an ambitious plan, but Merrill is certain he can pull it off. “One hundred percent,” he declares. “I get this shit-eating grin and goosebumps just thinking about it.”
He points to internationally known chefs José Andrés and Massimo Bottura, who have both used their success to help bring food to communities in need: Andrés with World Central Kitchen, and Bottura with Food for Soul. But Merrill doesn’t want to wait until he’s famous: “Why would I spend the next thirty years building up to that when I can figure out how to do it right now?,” he asks.
Rage Against the Sandwich currently exists only as an Instagram account (@rage.the.wich), a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for a full website, and the idea of a very sincere chef. But a few lunches have already been served, and a few hungry men and women on the streets of Denver have been thankful to receive a free meal.
Now Jonathan Merrill is ready to rage.