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With his booming voice, chef Jon Wirtis commanded the attention of his kitchen staff. He instructed his staff of four how to prepare one of his favorite meals: eggs over easy.

"I started as a breakfast cook," he said. "My dad taught me how to cook eggs."

As an executive chef for many years in California, Oregon and Tucson, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and a culinary instructor himself, Wirtis could pick his job. Instead, the 53-year-old kitchen maestro oversees a staff of students who, in the process of learning their way around a commercial kitchen, prepare thousands of meals for homeless and hungry people.

"It feels good to help people," said Wirtis, who works in the Caridad Community Kitchen, a program of the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona. Its director is Debbie Purdon.

The kitchen sits on the edge of the Dunbar-Spring Neighborhood, at North Main Avenue and West Second Street north of downtown, in a 13-year-old gray-block, 5,200-square-foot building named for the founder of Caridad, the late Rev. Joseph Baker, a Roman Catholic priest.

Baker started the nondenominational Caridad, which is Spanish for charity, in 2000. Before that, Baker fed the hungry and homeless for more than 15 years at nearby Holy Family Catholic Church.

Two years ago, as funds and support dwindled for Caridad, the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona acquired the build-ing and program.

From the Caridad kitchen emerge 14,000 meals a month and thousands of gallons of soup. The food is distributed at eight churches and homeless shelters - Wirtis calls them banquet sites. The soup is ladled out nightly by volunteers from Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church at several points in and near downtown.

Several years ago, the number of meals prepared by Caridad was between 7,500 to 8,000 a month.

Wirtis, who grew up in Los Angeles Jewish delis, describes his food as "recognizable comfort food."

"The people we feed are very grateful. I've walked into banquet sites to standing ovations," Wirtis said.

Helping to feed homeless people, the elderly and families who have a place to live but little money to buy food, brings comfort to Wirtis. It also brings him to tears. His eyes welled up while we talked during a Wednesday morning break from his daily instruction.

Caridad's culinary program is a compact, certified 10-week course. Its students are individuals seeking a new career or start. Some students are underemployed and looking for a career. Some are homeless. They are all on scholarship.

The current class of four students graduates on Friday.

The program changes people's lives, gives them a chance to better themselves, Wirtis said.

Dora Tarpley is a current student who is looking for a new career.

"We learn all aspects of running a kitchen, even cleaning it," said Tarpley between making sand-wiches.

A graduate from the first class, Thomas Creeden now works at Caridad kitchen.

One of the many lessons and principles he's learned from Wirtis is pride.

"When you do 40 pounds of meatloaf, it's something to behold," said Creeden. "Everybody had pride in what we we're doing."

That's a key ingredient in Wirtis' kitchen. Pride in the preparation and delivery of food.

The Caridad kitchen in the barrio is nothing close to those at the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego or McCormick & Schmick's in Portland, two of the places where Wirtis worked. But that doesn't matter to him.

Those places and meals pale in comparison to the satisfaction he feels knowing that the meals he helps prepare feed hungry people.

"I do it because I want to," he said.

Ernesto "Neto" Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. He can be reached at (520) 573-4187 or at