How do you prepare lunch from scratch when just two and a half hours earlier, it’s an open question as to what’s in the pantry, how many volunteers will be helping, and whether 100 or 200 guests will appear?
Lines start forming around 11:00 am at the door and soon wrap around the corner. Regulars know what to expect: Monday, salmon loaf; Tuesday, stew, Wednesday, soup; Thursday, pasta; Friday, meat or poultry with rice and beans. They have favorites, but they also know that whatever is served will be delicious and nutritious. They just don’t know how much creativity and teamwork is involved in lunch preparations.
CHiPS receives groceries and fresh produce donations from the Park Slope Food Coop; trays of barbecue, muffins, and beans from Dinosaur BBQ; leftovers from office parties and Bar Mitzvahs; and canned goods from food drives. But, it’s often a little of this or that, half a lamb after Ramadan, or a ton of squash and an entire flat of blueberries. It’s not uncommon to find oneself with a shortage of ingredients for a recipe, like potatoes, onions, or fresh meat.
We asked the daily team captains in the soup kitchen for their “secret sauce” for getting lunch together. “You need to get ahead of the game, take stock early, be extremely organized, know what’s needed, and pivot if necessary,” said Barbara Roche and Mary Collins, Wednesday co-captains. They try to arrive before everyone else. This way, pots of stock are started, and vegetables and chicken are laid out when other volunteers arrive. Barbara also prepares two extra pots of stock and cans of chicken and vegetables for when more guests than usual show up.
“Creativity and imagination,” said Frances Vargas, Friday’s co-captain. “You need creativity and improvisation to make the best of what’s available without wasting anything. This might mean repurposing leftovers, last minute ingredient substitutions, or a touch of magic.” Frances recalls the time they received a large donation of duck breasts. Without prior duck-prep knowledge, the crew improvised and cut the duck into cubes, and baked them in apricot preserves and orange marmalade from the panty; it turned out to be one of the best meals ever.
Tom Pace, Tuesday’s captain, talks about teamwork. “The captains are only a small part of the effort to prepare and serve meals to our clients. We couldn’t do it without the enthusiastic support of the Park Slope Food Co-Op members and regular volunteers working in the kitchen. Many of them have been doing this for more than a decade.”
“It’s controlled chaos, like choreographing a dance, and making volunteers feel productive and creative,” says Linda Silverman, Monday’s captain and a retired CUNY program administrator with strong administrative and people skills. “People come and go,” she continues. “There’s someone new everyday. Some volunteers need to be taught how to chop food into the right sizes for guests with bad teeth. Most people like to be supervised and directed. But, working with volunteers, it’s best to let people do what they like to do. The secret is knowing when to step back and let them be.”
Day captains come all year round except August when temperatures in the kitchen soar and CHiPS is forced to close till September. Some captains have been around for decades. “It’s never boring,” said Linda. “It’s always fascinating to see how there is nothing to begin with, then all of a sudden, all these people are sitting down together and eating a fresh, nutritious, home-cooked meal.”
And this is what CHiPS is all about: food, friendship, and hope since 1971.