Student chefs sharpen skills, win friends at homeless shelter
Updated 1:19 pm, Friday, September 23, 2011
Residents of the Gillespie Center homeless shelter didn't have to go out earlier this month for fine dining. It came to them one evening.
Prepared and served by members of Staples High School's culinary arts club, the fare included wheat penne pasta with a ratatouille-style sauce, meatballs with homemade pesto, baguettes, salad with a homemade dressing and baked peaches with a whole grain streusel topping.
The meal got rave reviews.
"One guy said it was the first time he had fresh tomato sauce and it was the best thing he ever tasted," said Lori Cochran-Dougall, director of the Westport Farmers' Market. All of the ingredients came from the market or the high school's gardens.
A consortium of groups responsible for the Sept. 9 meal have committed to serve one per month. They include the Westport Farmers' Market, Sunrise Rotary and Staples senior chef instructor Cecily Gans, along with students from her advanced class and the school's culinary arts club.
Staples senior Kelly Powers said her experience at the shelter earlier this month was so positive she wishes the meals were served more frequently.
"I want to go back this week," she said. "I didn't realize how much I would enjoy doing it."
Sunrise Rotary has committed $1,000, and its members will shop for ingredients at the farmers' market and deliver them to Staples the second Friday of every month, where meals will be prepared just a few hours before they are served, Gans said.
While Gillespie Center residents and others who have meals there are the obvious beneficiaries. But the experience of volunteering can open one's eyes to the realities of life, said Jeff Wieser, president and CEO of its parent organization, Homes with Hope.
"Anybody who serves a meal there recognizes very quickly that these residents are not bad people," he said. "They're not people trying to escape the realities of life. They just have some sort of incapacity that prevents them from living a life that we all aspire to."
Wieser said he hopes the students' involvement makes them realize they are not invincible or immune from life's hurdles."It can happen to the best of us," he said.
Sunrise Rotary's Dennis Wong added, "The more face-to-face engagement people have with each other, the better one can understand people's needs and how we can serve them."
Powers, who plans to study culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University, said she was "surprised at how nice and caring everyone was." She didn't expect those with so little would be upbeat.
Staples junior Rusty Schindler also said his experience was positive.
"Some of them are really funny," he said of the group he served. "They told us jokes and asked about high school. One guy even told me he earned his culinary degree in 1985. Some wanted to know a lot about the food, and some just wanted to get to know us."
Gans said the interaction between her students and shelter residents was impressive.
"They (the students) were talking about their life goals, going to college or enrolling in a culinary program," she said. "The people they were serving seemed genuinely interested in who they were as young adults in the Westport community."
Cochran-Dougall said the adult supervisors "took a backseat and let them have the communication."
Schindler first volunteered at the shelter with his parents about seven years ago. His latest visit, he said, made him realize how people living in shelters are often stereotyped from afar.
"When you really get to know people, you find they're much different than how they're perceived," he said.
Staples junior Ben Reiser was unable to take a culinary class this year due to other academic requirements, but volunteered for the shelter-cooking project so he could work with Gans, whom he said he admires.
When he arrived at the shelter, however, he received a bonus he hadn't counted on.
"It was like a sense of altruism that I never felt before," he said. "I had done some charity work before but never saw the faces or looked directly into the eyes of the people I was helping. Prior to this, it was mostly raising money for a cause to send to some organization."
Passionate about cooking, Reiser said he is glad that what he creates in the kitchen can help in some small way. Like Powers and Schindler, he, too, was impressed by the warmth of people at the Gillespie Center.
"I thought there wasn't going to be too much conversation," he said. "I found out that it wasn't just a stale, run-of-the-mill, `Here you go.' I connected to them. I talked with them. I got to see the smiles on their faces when I handed them the food, and ultimately, that's what was really gratifying about the whole experience."
The culinary arts club that Gans helped get started 11 years ago began as a community-service club, though it eventually moved away from that, becoming more of an opportunity for students to develop individual cooking skills.
The Gillespie Center project has returned the club to its community-service roots. Every month, the students will make enough to feed 30 to 40 people.
"We prepare enough for leftovers," Gans said.
While her classes and the club help prepare students to cook for themselves or to attend a culinary school, Gans said, it's also important for her students to "take what I've given them as skill and help the world around them"