Among the many who undertake the rigors of professional cooking, there are those who do it simply for a paycheck, learning only enough to do the job. But many of us see it as a career, spending years accumulating experience and knowledge in the hope of becoming an influential member of our profession.  If you consider yourself a true culinary professional, working in community meal centers can provide you with opportunities you may have never considered.

We gather our culinary skills by providing quality meals for paying customers. Feedback is immediate and brutally honest but not necessarily accurate.   Customers who find the soubise sauce too oniony or their expensive steak not well done enough may have no appreciation for the finer points of cooking yet are still quick to voice their opinions because they are paying for the meal. For the professional cook this lack of appreciation can be frustrating, based on nothing more than the exchange of food for money.

We prefer to toil for more appreciative family and friends intimately familiar with the long years of work it takes for us to develop into a competent professional. It may also help that we are already familiar with the preferences of family members and can incorporate those nuances into the process.

But underlying both of these activities is the same desire; to utilize all of our skills in producing quality meals for an appreciative audience.  As we listen to yet another customer gripe about how what we have produced is not like their mother used to make, we can’t help but wonder where to find people who are simply grateful to be eating at all and especially grateful that the food tastes so good.

Your local community meals programs offer nutritious, freshly made fare to the general public free of charge. Programs are run on a volunteer basis funded entirely by donations. They are where much of the food from your local food bank ends up.

As the food supply is donation based, the menus are planned no more than two or three days ahead, based on whatever happens to be in the pantry and the most recent delivery of donations.  There may be an assortment of vegetables, various retail packages of meat, several cases of one item in particular and a motley collection of bottles, cans and packages. Over time most kitchens develop a healthy collection of odds and ends in addition to the regular donations.

These kitchens are typically staffed by generous souls willing to give up their time to make sure others have a chance to eat. The volunteers may be elderly, students, retirees or volunteers from a church. They make up for their lack of professional experience by figuring out how best to work together to make sure the food on hand is well prepared and on time and the donations are not going to waste.  The focus for all involved is always on the customers. No concern is ever wasted over who gets promoted.

Naturally you won’t get paid in cash but you do end up rewarded in other ways. Creativity is called for in preparing every meal. Deciding on a particular dish often means having to do without one or more traditional ingredients or finding suitable substitutes from available supplies. While fresh milk may not be available, dried or evaporated may be. Perhaps breadcrumbs would be traditionally called for but two boxes of oatmeal will have to substitute.  There may be four pounds of garlic powder but no oregano. A great chef is supposed to be able to make something great out of not much at all. A community meal kitchen provides you with the opportunity to see how great you can be every day you help out.

If you enjoy teaching, a community kitchen is a golden opportunity. Those volunteers may not be familiar with mother sauces, mise en place or prep lists but they are typically open to a better, more efficient way of doing everything. Your knife skills will earn you enormous respect. For possibly the first time in your career, you can teach people who want to learn, not someone who is just there for the paycheck.

You won’t encounter customer complaints much. Broad spectrum concerns like religious restrictions are always given priority but it is not often you find someone complaining about their dietary concerns, real or imagined or being very concerned over calorie counts. They are there to get a meal and they are very aware that it costs them nothing. For many, a community meal center may be the only meal they can rely on. As someone once said, hunger is the best condiment.

There is the opportunity to enjoy working together with others doing what you love with none of the pressure of a restaurant line. You won’t have to worry about who will be getting promoted, who failed to show up, who feels grumpy or who has the best sauté skills. Everyone wants to be there and are happy and hardworking, whatever their level of ability.  

Most important is the reaction of the clients, the opposite of those typical in the cash for food exchange of a typical restaurant.  What they are quick to tell you is how much they enjoyed the good meal, clearly, loudly and sometimes repeatedly. Occasionally you get an especially memorable encounter. There was one homeless man I will never forget.

Many years ago I volunteered every Friday night at a community kitchen in Seattle, WA. One of the guests was a dirty, disheveled homeless man with obvious mental problems. I saw him around town frequently, often muttering to himself and gesturing wildly for no apparent reason. One day he appeared in the serving line still disheveled and dirty, muttering to himself as he came down the line.  As he held his plate out for me to give him some vegetables, he suddenly became very clear eyed and focused, looking directly at me. “Thank You. God Bless you for being here” he stated, clear as a bell. A shallow “You’re welcome” was all I could stammer out, I was so shocked at his momentary transformation. He immediately returned to muttering incoherently and moved on.

Whenever I encounter a customer in a restaurant making a shallow and uneducated complaint, I remember that man and his simple and sincere gratitude. No amount of money can ever provide that kind of compensation. That reaction is what I want every time I put my heart and soul into my cooking. If you are a professional cook, I suspect that’s all you want too.  Your local community meal program is the place to find it. If you can’t find one nearby, you may be just the person to start one.
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