Project Open Hand chef serves healthy meals by the thousands

Every year, executive chef Adrian Barrow looks forward to Project Open Hand’s benefit luncheon.

“It’s one of my favorite events; I enjoy mingling with the people who are our supporters and we get to cook some amazing dishes with some amazing cooks,” says the chef who oversees the San Francisco nonprofit’s extensive meal service for seniors and people who are ailing.

This year, he’s working with celebrity chef and keynote speaker Cat Cora, who’s preparing a halibut dish for the 25th annual Hand to Hand Holiday Luncheon on Dec. 14 at the Fairmont hotel.

“Fish is great when it’s cooked by a high-end chef,” says Barrow, whose contribution to the menu will be a Ghirardelli cocoa and coffee rub pork loin with Mission fig jus and Yukon Gold potato and chicory gratin.

Barrow, who has been Project Open Hand’s top chef since March 2016, is in charge of making sure the agency serves correctly catered, medically approved, nutritious meals to its numerous clients.

Some 2,500 meals (different for diabetic, lowfat, vegan, renal and bland diets) and 200 grocery bags are provided daily.

He oversees eight chefs at the Polk Street facility (preparing meals served in The City and Oakland) and works with dietitians and managers of the organization’s varied programs — and cooks, too.

“I was in the kitchen all morning; we made basa with ginger sauce and brown rice with roasted broccoli,” he says, adding, “I have 1,200 seniors to serve today, they like fish.”

He admits it’s a big operation, but it runs well thanks to a good staff, active supporters and reliable volunteers who help with prep and pack bag meals. Some have been with the organization longer than he has.

At Thursday’s benefit, Project Open Hand CEO Mark Ryle will present longtime board member Linda Glick, San Francisco public health director Barbara A. Garcia, Giants Enterprises and Gilead Sciences, Inc., with special awards.

Interestingly, Barrow’s introduction to Project Open Hand was almost 10 years ago — as a client.

“My health had taken a nosedive,” said the Barbados-born Barrow, who went to culinary school in Brooklyn and worked in swanky eateries in Manhattan before moving to San Francisco in 2008 for a sous chef job at the fast-paced, power lunch Financial District spot Aqua.

It burned him out, to the point he had to leave.

His doctor recommended he take advantage of the healthy meals at Project Open Hand, and when he showed up, he learned of a job opportunity a special chef.

“I had my intake form and a resume in both hands” he says, adding, “four hours later, there was a call on my answering machine.”

For Barrow, the primary difference between working at Project Open Hand and a fine restaurant relates to the menu.

“Quality and creativity are the same,” he says, but the recipes at POH are specifically geared toward improving people’s health.

“Calories and carbs are taken into account,” he adds, mentioning that he didn’t wholly embrace good nutrition before coming to the agency: “It’s hard to put into practice when you’re cooking foie gras,” he says.

These days, his clients’ favorite meals include Mongolian beef, Singapore-marinated chicken legs, wild rice stuffed mushrooms and English pea soup.

Pork and lentil stew, which Barrow calls “our cheat dish,” is another popular entrée: “It’s nice with a little bit of bacon; it goes a long way in cheering people up.”

Once or twice a year, he’ll respond to regular client requests for mac and cheese, which has heavy cream. But he adds, “We try to keep it as calorie friendly as possible.”

Hand to Hand Holiday Luncheon
Presented by Project Open Hand
Where: Fairmont, 950 Mason St., S.F.
When: 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Dec. 14
Tickets: $350 and up
Contact: (415) 447-2320,

Leslie Katz

San Francisco Examiner’s arts and entertainment editor Leslie Katz has been assigning, editing and/or writing news stories about the Bay Area’s rich cultural scene since 1997. Reach her at (415) 359-2727 or

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