BOISE, Idaho (CNS) — Most people know chef Lou Aaron for his culinary mastery, including the Idaho Ice Cream Potato, that draws crowds to his Westside Drive-in, a nationally recognized establishment given five stars on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.”
What most don’t know is that Aaron’s Catholic faith is a key ingredient in all parts of his life as he approaches ordination to the permanent diaconate.
It’s because of his faith that Aaron has provided food to needy people outside of a Catholic Worker-inspired shelter in Boise as well as families in need of a meal that gain the notice of a local pastor. He has spearheaded fundraising events for schools, parishes and community organizations.
And at Westside Drive-in, he likes to hire people whom most employers would consider at-risk: the homeless and former prison inmates among them. It’s part of the family-like atmosphere he promotes in the business he has owned since 1994.
“We hire a lot of people who are at the end of their rope. I see it as a way to give hope to those who feel hopeless,” he said.
If people feel valued, they will work hard, Aaron believes, and people who lack skills can learn. But he has found that he cannot provide motivation for anyone who doesn’t see their work as a vocation.
“I hire people off the effort they want to put in, to let them go as far as their efforts can take them,” he said.
Such a belief in the human spirit has guided Aaron’s life, even when he stopped practicing his Catholic faith at age 19, a year after his 1980 graduation from Boise’s Bishop Kelly High School.
It took a devastating fire that destroyed his family’s home and their belongings in 1996 to get him back to the church.
“The Holy Spirit came with fire and burned my house down,” Aaron recalled. “We lost everything. That was the defining moment when we decided to go back to the Catholic Church.”
For six months, the family dealt with the trauma of having escaped only with their lives, with the children coping with nightmares and other stresses. “Those were the toughest six months of our lives, but God gave us an opportunity to change our lives and we did,” Aaron said.
Around 2002, he started to feel that he might have a vocation to the diaconate. However, instead of discerning the call, he dismissed it. Looking back, Aaron said, his actions reminded him of Charlton Heston as Moses in the movie classic, “The Ten Commandments.”
“I went back to Exodus and read the story in detail. Five times, God told Moses he wanted him to go and save his people. Five times, Moses said no. Then, God got angry and Moses finally gave in,” Aaron said.
“I kept telling God no, but then it hit me four years ago, and I said ‘yes,'” he recounted. “I mentioned it to my pastor, Msgr. (Dennis) Wassmuth, and he said, ‘What took you so long?’ A lot of people were seeing it before me.”
Preparing food has been a nearly lifelong passion for Aaron. He began working in restaurants as a teenager and apprenticed at several in Boise before graduating from the American Culinary Federation’s Chef Apprenticeship program in 1984.
The following year, he met his wife, Renee, and they were married in 1987. He worked several years for the Hilton Corp. in San Antonio, and was featured on the PBS television series “Great Chefs of the West.” In 1989, he returned to Boise as a corporate chef before buying Westside Drive-in five years later.
Along the way, he has not feared hiring people who many would never consider for work. He knows that nearly 80 percent of the hires will end up not working out — at least the first time. He has hired one person nearly 20 times during the past 17 years.
An alcoholic, the worker stays sober for a few months before he starts drinking again, gets in trouble and goes back to prison. The man, currently in prison, will be rehired after he serves his current sentence, if he asks for his job back.
“You don’t ever give up on somebody,” Aaron said. “You never know if this will be the time he stays sober.”
The restaurateur is a recovering alcoholic himself, so he understands the struggles his employees go through. “We all fail. We all fall down,” he said. “God just wants us to get back up again.”
Since entering studies for the diaconate in 2012, Aaron has questioned his own worthiness and experienced self-doubt, but now feels ready to serve God in this new ministry.
In November, Aaron received surprising news after a series of unrelated health tests revealed he had follicular lymphoma, a slow-growing but incurable cancer. “When you hear the word (cancer), immediately everything changes,” Aaron said.
His doctors wanted to begin immediate treatment, but they sent Aaron for a second opinion to the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance where physicians, based on his lack of symptoms, suggested instead that he monitor the progression of the disease through quarterly blood tests every three months and semiannual CT scans.
Aaron said he is not afraid to talk about the cancer, because it provides him with another opportunity to share his faith message.
“I know God is actively working through me,” he added. “I’m just going where the Lord wants me to go with it.”
Brown is editor of the Idaho Catholic Register, newspaper of the Boise Diocese.