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Search The Fig Tree's stories of people who make a difference:

‘Chef Gus’ prepares meals for, dines with homeless people

John Olsen—Chef Gus—knows that as people chew on food they chew on thoughts.

John Olson - Chef Gus
John Olson, better know as 'Chef Gus'

“The best conversations people have are around tables with a good meal,” he said.  “Good food makes things happen, like Jesus gathering people to hear the Sermon on the Mount, telling stories and then feeding them.”

John has been cooking for homeless people on and off for 26 years.

He said he uses the name Chef Gus to honor his grandfather, who left being a camp cook in the gold fields of Alaska to set up a café in Hillyard. 

In the 30 years of operating that café, his grandfather often served hobos from the nearby railroad yards in the early 1900s.  Because his mother grew up knowing hobos, John said she often invited them for meals in their home during his childhood years.

“I’ve dined with the homeless all my life,” he said.

“Christ said feed me, clothe me and house me,” he said.  “I believe in direct action.  When I cooked at the House of Charity and Shalom Ministries, I met Jesus every day as people came up and talked with me.”

He spends about 12 weeks each summer—between May and September—cooking at Holden Village, which he considers his parish.  He has also attended St. Mark’s Lutheran and St. Ann’s Catholic in Spokane.

John shared some of his life journey. After high school in Spokane he completed a five-year program in optometry at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore., in 1968.  He served as a captain in the army and practiced optometry in the Canal Zone while living in Panama City, where he continued to meet “the real world”—with children going through garbage he put out and when he drove through slums to work. 

John began working at Group Health in Seattle in 1971 and worked there until he retired 30 years later—except for 12 months off in 1982 to be at home with his newborn daughter, Britta.

Despite having little church in his life, he wanted to have Britta christened.  About that time, he met the minister at Phinney Ridge Lutheran Church, and decided to take a membership class.  John was baptized on his 40th birthday in 1985 when Britta was baptized.

John became involved as a youth group leader, with church council and in other roles.  He helped build Habitat for Humanity houses one week each year for five years.  He also went with the youth group to Denney Place Youth Shelter and Emmanuel Lutheran Church, where they ate and talked with homeless men and teens on the street.

After retiring, he volunteered for five years with the King County Crisis Line and Teen Link suicide crisis line, where he said he learned how to converse with people who are struggling.

“I wasn’t good at solving the problems for those who called.  I would listen to their stories.  Then I’d say, I know things are hard.  I’d have them contract with me not to take their lives,” he said.  “Then I’d ask if they were me and had just heard what they told me, what would they tell themselves.”

The callers would then talk about creating their own solutions.

“Everyone has their own answers,” John said.

John said he learned to cook from his mother and from cooking for five years for 200 children with disabilities at Camp Casey on Whidbey Island through Kiwanis, while working with Group Health. 

In late 2003, he took a year in culinary studies at Edmonds Community College.  As part of their externship program, he cooked 12 weeks at Holden Village, the Lutheran and ecumenical retreat center in the Cascades in the Glacier Peaks Wilderness near Lake Chelan.

John returned to Spokane, where his mother still lives.

In Spokane, he became involved with the Odyssey Youth Center for gay and lesbian youth, volunteering once or twice a week for five years as a mentor, providing an adult presence.

For six years after returning to Spokane in 2004, he also cooked at Shalom Ministries, serving about 100 breakfasts a day early in the month and up to 200 a day by the end of the month, plus a dinner on Mondays for up to 300.

Until this January, John volunteered for several years to help the cooking staff at the House of Charity, turn federal, food bank and individual food donations into meals to serve up to 350 meals a day.

In contrast with hobos he met in his youth who were people who moved from place to place on the trains, John said that nearly 40 percent of the chronic homeless whom he has met in downtown Spokane are veterans, about 80 percent are drug or alcohol addicted, many are suffering mental illness, and nearly 20 percent are gay, bisexual or transgendered.

“People are now younger than a few years ago when the average age was 40 to 45.  It’s now 28,” he estimates.

Shalom Ministries provides meals, and the House of Charity and Crosswalk provide temporary shelter and social workers to help those who want help, he said.

“The people are on their individual walks, bearing their crosses,” John said.

“I look at life daily through the metaphor of Holy Week events leading to the crucifixion,” he said, seeing hope as possible for people.  “I recognize people coming into my life asking who they may be in that analogy—Peter? Pilate? Simon of Syrene?  It gives me a context to see how I can help or be helped in relationship to people I encounter.

“I’m blessed to have the resources I have that allow me to take care of myself and do this calling,” he said.

For information, call 220-4534.