Double Trellis’s Chef Marcu on Feeding Food-Insecure Philadelphians

Plus, the math required to serve filling and dignified meals to 500 people every week and what the conventional approach to nutrition so often gets wrong.

marcu james

Marcu James / Photograph by David “Blacktastic” Canady

Behind the Line is Foobooz’s interview series with the people who make up Philly’s dynamic bar and restaurant scene. For the complete archives, go here.

Marcu James is a Philly-based chef with his own private events business, Palate Marcu: International Kitchen. He’s worked all over the city, from opening Steak 48 on Broad Street to catering meals at William Way LGBT Community Center. Most recently, Marcu collaborated with the team at Santé on a pop-up dinner highlighting Senegalese, Trinidadian, Mediterranean and Latin dishes.

In 2022, Marcu began working as the community chef and director of social media marketing at Double Trellis Food Initiative, which provides groceries and stocks community fridges around the city with filling and dignified meals for food- and housing-insecure Philadelphians. Since its inception in the summer of 2020, Double Trellis has produced over 30,000 meals. The organization continues to expand — they’ll soon transition from a space in the Bok Building to a new production kitchen in the Dorrance Hamilton Center for Culinary Enterprises in West Philly. Marcu — with his infectious joy and commitment to seeing the whole person — is instrumental in bringing Double Trellis’s mission to life every week. Here’s his story, how he learned to feed huge groups of people, and why the work at Double Trellis should matter to anyone who cares about food in our city.

I grew up in… Fort Myers, Florida. But I was born here, like right at Hahnemann hospital.

When I was 16, I ended up running away from Florida … and back to my mother in Philly. In Florida, I felt like there was no community to really attach to as a young queer person. I was, like, changing clothes at school, trying to find my identity. I was seeking to see myself in a new light. I wanted to feel like I wasn’t hiding from my true, great queer-trans self. I couldn’t do that in Florida in the way that I felt like I could here. So I came back to Philly, graduated high school, and went off to East Stroudsburg University to study theater.

As a community chef at Double Trellis … I help pump out 200 to 500 meals over the course of two days. We do a prep day and then we do a cooking and packaging day. That’s when the meals go out. And, every week, we switch up the menu.

When I’m developing recipes for food-insecure Philadelphians … it’s always based on including all the necessary pieces of a meal. Macros and macros are great. But are we feeding people in ways that also resonate with their cultural experiences? So maybe you have a family that’s experiencing food insecurity and they’re West Indian or they’re Liberian, for example, how can we give them a meal that feels like home? And how can we make sure that we’re not destroying a traditional dish? Then we’ll sit down as a team and discuss costing, how to get the right food items, and the right spice mixes.

I fell in love with food production and overseeing a cooking process from start to finish while I …. was working at Chipotle on 15th and Walnut. It was my first cooking job. I needed a job and money sounded great. After a series of working at fast food restaurants, I completely switched paths. In 2017 and 2018, I was teaching people how to throw axes at Bury The Hatchet on Washington Avenue.

I learned how to cook for huge numbers of people when … I started doing catering and events work. I got connected with someone in the queer community in Philly who needed a chef to cook at the Black Trans History Panel at William Way. At this time, I knew some things from bouncing around restaurants. I wanted to cook and do events. They gave me the opportunity. It was my first real event and that just took off. My passion was reignited. I was like, “I’m not throwing axes anymore.”

The best and worst day I’ve ever had in a kitchen was … cooking at the Pennsylvania Trans Wellness Conference in 2019. I did stuffed mushrooms three ways, salmon croquettes, a gourmet five-cheese mac and cheese, two salads, and stuffed peppers. That was for 500 people. I ended up renting a church kitchen and Ubering left and right because I didn’t have a car or anyone helping me. The day of the event, I recruited five people at the conference to help me prep at the church and I paid them cash. We rolled in with the food hot and ready to be served. I cried. I cried at the end because people were praising the food. I was so proud of myself. I had never delegated tasks to anyone before.

When COVID hit, I … had just received paperwork for my LLC. I had no way to pivot, I had no backup. I didn’t qualify for PPP loans. I didn’t qualify for any of the business help that the city was giving out because I was a brand-new LLC. I had no employees, and all the requirements were like, “Oh, you need three years of transactional bank statements to even get help.” I lost my regular income and my business. I was filing for unemployment and trying to survive. I just did not know what I was up against.

I started working with Double Trellis … at the end of 2022. We had been following each other online and kind of appreciating each other’s work. Then eventually that led to a DM and then we talked.

Working to ensure food security in Philly is important to me because … I was a person who needed food during the pandemic. I needed community fridges multiple times. I needed food drop-offs and fresh fruit boxes and stuff like that. I needed those. And I was feeding myself and another person at the time. So it was really close to home to say, “Oh, I get to like, turn around and give back in that way.”

Serving 500 people a week involves … a lot of math. For example, we make a Moroccan chickpea stew that’s really easy to scale. It’s heavy in nutrients just based on the region that it comes from. So we’re thinking about how many grams of protein come in a 128-ounce can of chickpeas and how many six-or-eight servings of protein can we get into the meal based on the serving of chickpeas that we add. It also needs to be a filling meal. Maybe somebody can only get access to the fridge once a day. Can they get this meal and eat from it more than once? Can they get this meal and choose to eat what’s filling now but also not be afraid to save some for later?

I like to think about nutrition outside of “calories going in and out” … because it’s not that simple. There’s the physical side of nutrition, which is “am I even getting any? How will this make sure I’m not sleepy afterwards? How will this make sure that I have enough energy to go to work?” Maybe you’re food-insecure but you do have a job or you have to feed so many people that your job doesn’t cover all the expenses. But I also want to know that the person mentally and physically feels good when they eat something. Usually people experience food through the mind.

My experience at Double Trellis has been … so helpful as a business owner, especially as a person of color who didn’t have access to certain resources. You don’t know what you don’t know, right? And so if I’m not operating that business the right way, how do I know that? Like if I don’t have access to business information or business classes. During the pandemic, I had lost hope. Am I ever gonna be able to get my business up and running the way I want it to? Are people ever gonna see me and take me seriously the way they take, unfortunately, white-owned businesses seriously? Or am I just “the meantime” guy? Am I just the guy that you come to for low prices? There are a lot of unfortunate unspoken things that happen that can be really dangerous to a business owner. Being at Double Trellis has meant I can reinvent myself while also being able to earn income.

When I’m not cooking, I’m a regular at … Nine Ting on Race Street in Chinatown. My fiancé and I love hot pot. It’s our favorite thing ever.

In the future I’d like to … have a cooking show. I love to teach. I’m looking to restart my YouTube channel. I have a lot of other young Black trans chefs who follow me. Their whole thing is like “I’m so happy I found you because I don’t know where else to find people like me doing what I’m doing.” I also want to continue to do private parties and exclusive events so I can provide a tailored experience to people.