"God was telling me to go deeper:" Oakland chef feeds homeless after losing everything in fire

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Thomas Patrick Former is a religious man who feels that no good deed will go unpunished.

So even though Former, known to his devotees as “Chef Pat,” lost his popular Starfish Seafood Café in a four-alarm strip mall fire on MacArthur Boulevard last year, he did not despair.

In fact, he’s been helping others – feeding the homeless every Friday for the last five weeks, even though he is one paycheck away from homeless himself.

“I’m just like the people I’m feeding,” he said. Earlier this month, he went to a homeless encampment at 10th Street and Martin Luther King Way in Oakland dressed in his white chef uniform and toting 20 pounds of tilapia. He cooked it all until it was gone, gospel tunes beating in the background as he handed out meals to anyone in need. People walked up, thanking him, saying “God bless.”

Former is not a rich man. In fact, just the opposite. The 45-year-old Stockton native and marketing graduate of Grambling State University lost about half a million dollars when the fire ripped through the strip mall at 7300 MacArthur Boulevard on May 21, 2016. He had worked years catering with a friend to find enough money to open the café, where he slept sometimes when he didn’t have enough money for rent. . In its heyday, the café’s Yelp reviews earned a  4.75-star rating, with customers raving about his shrimp, oysters, crab and fish and chips.

“I lost everything,” he said. Well, mostly everything. His cafe food cart survived the fire, which he brings every Friday to serve food from.

At the time, Oakland Vice Mayor Desley Brooks told KTVU that rebuilding for many of these small businesses would be hard and that she would try to help do what she could to help. Brooks’ office didn’t respond by email or phone seeking comment. And Former said her office had never been in touch with him.

What’s worse is that Former was not insured. And since the cause of the fire was undetermined, there is no one else’s insurance who will pick up the tab.

The landlord of the property, Kalpesh Patel, said each tenant had to have his or her own insurance policy, but “unfortunately, Pat did not obtain the insurance.” 

But instead of giving up, Former has been working hard to rebuild his life. He now has a job as a self-employed caterer and caregiver to the elderly. He lives with a widower in Castro Valley. He gets by.
Sometime this summer, he realized he wanted to start cooking again. But was he ready to reopen a restaurant? Who better to start with, and to cook for, than the homeless people he kept passing in tents dotting the sidewalks and parks.

“It’s like God said, ‘go down to the tents and cook.’ I think God was telling me to go deeper,” Former said.
He connects with people who have nowhere to live.  He realizes that he, too, could be out on the streets, if just one paycheck didn’t come through.

Former said he has faith. He lives by this proverb, “He that giveth unto the poor, lendeth unto the Lord.”

He chuckled and the irony of his situation -- that as a very poor man himself he’s helping the homeless. “It’s like Bill Gates is front of you in line and forgets his wallet,” Former said, “and you end up saying to him, ‘I’ll get it for you.’”
He added: “But you never know what Bill Gates will do later on.”

To help Former, he started a GoFundMe page after the fire.