At the Enfield Loaves and Fishes, guests are not only fed, they are fed well.
Three professionally trained chefs volunteer at the busy soup kitchen, which serves 75-125 people each day.
“It’s like going to a five-star restaurant,” said Joseph Scott, a 34-year-old laid-off construction worker, who started off with a cup of coffee and a piece of pizza as an appetizer one recent day before going for the main course: chicken and ribs. He noted the kitchen also serves dessert.
“Where are you going to find someone who’s a personal chef and get a great meal?” he said. “We’re fortunate to even get a meal.”
Two of the chefs are retired, and one is looking for a full-time job. But all three welcome the chance to express themselves as culinary artists — especially when dishing up delights to the disadvantaged.
“I love it. I absolutely love it,” said chef Mike Leborious, a 55-year-old Enfield resident who boasts he’s a graduate of Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., and who retired after decades in the industry.
His resume includes running the Polynesian Resort in the Luau Cove at Walt Disney World from 1979 to 1983. He also ran his own family restaurant, Alley & Ikes, which he ran in Enfield for about a decade before retiring 10 years ago
“You hear the word ‘thank you’ a lot more here,” Leborious said.
The soup kitchen, a nonprofit incorporated in 1982, provides meals and fellowship to the poor, hungry and disenfranchised within the community at St. Andrew’s Church Hall at 28 Prospect St. in Enfield. Meals are served 4 to 5 p.m. Sunday through Friday. On Saturday, servings start at 11 a.m. and end at 12:30 p.m
Like other soup kitchens around the state, Enfield Loaves and Fishes has seen the demand for meals grow in the past few years. In 2011, it served 42,792 meals. By last year, it was serving 56,414 meals a year. That’s nearly a 32 percent rise.
Before the soup kitchen opens one recent day, men, women and children line up outside. They enter at 3:30 p.m. and stand before a counter where food is served cafeteria-style. Behind the glass in metal warming trays are roasted chicken and ribs, butternut squash with a savory caramel sauce, and a sweet-and-sour casserole of rice, which was donated by a nearby Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant, and made more palatable with pepper and pineapple.
A piece of pineapple takes one of the guests by surprise.
“That was different. There’s a pineapple here,” said unemployed Certified Public Accountant, Tory Cuyler, 42, who comes to the soup kitchen two to three times a week with 10-year-old Cheyenne and 6-year-old Gregory, the two youngest of his five children. “That was good. It tastes pretty good. A different taste to it.”
But when they arrive for the day to volunteer, the chefs are more like contestants in a“Chopped” episode on TV’s Food Network. On the show, competing chefs are presented with four secret ingredients in a basket and expected to whip up a gourmet meal using them all on deadline.
When the chefs arrive around 11 a.m., they have no idea what ingredients might be on hand. They open up the pantry and refrigerator, check out which meats, vegetables and canned goods are available, devise a menu, and then start cooking. And by 4 p.m., they’re serving five courses: appetizer, soup, salad, entree and dessert.
“You never know what you’re gonna make until you come to work,” said Al Gauthier, 49, who retired after 25 years in the food industry. “It’s fun.”
The graduate of Johnson & Wales in Charlotte, N.C., lists among his previous roles: chef at a restaurant and operator of eateries in two New Orlean’s bars. But it’s volunteering at Loaves and Fishes that gives him satisfaction.
“I’m watching them right now getting a hot-cooked meal in their stomach that they might not have today. This might be the only cooked meal they get for the day,” he said. “It feels good.”
Lou Ann Daigle, 53, a private caterer for the rich and famous until several years ago when the economy declined and her 40 clients in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New York dwindled to two, puts a gourmet touch like pineapple in the food she cooks at the soup kitchen. The Johnson & Wales graduate, who studied in Paris, France and Pescara, Italy, recalls practically getting a standing ovation for fresh tomato soup.
“I mean, they were going crazy,” she said.
She recalled incredulously how she showed up at the soup kitchen one day and was pleasantly surprised by what she saw: veal.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” she said.
She made a veal piccata, with lemon and capers, and recalls receiving rave reviews.
“Why should they eat any less than the average person eats?” she added, “They shouldn’t. So, when I go there, I give them the best I can.”
Johnson & Wales doesn’t keep track of how many culinary arts graduates are volunteering, a spokesperson for the College of Culinary Arts in Providence said.
“However, that our graduates are volunteering their culinary skills in soup kitchens does not come as a surprise…” Miriam Weinstein wrote in an email. “While it’s unfortunate that the employment opportunities are limited at this time — that they continue to employ their skills, stay current, and help the community is a positive reflection on the value they are to their communities. (makes us proud!)”
The efforts don’t go unnoticed by the guests.
“The food is very good. It’s the best,” said Nimo Akua, a 42-year-old immigrant from Ghana who goes the soup kitchen with her four children, ages 15, 14, 11 and 4, Monday through Friday. The home health aide recently had her work hours cut in half. But she refuses to go on welfare because she wants to set a good example for her children. The soup kitchen makes that possible.
“We had a steak,” she said, smiling. “And the lasagna, I love it.”
The soup kitchen’s executive director, Priscilla Brayson, says she gets a hug of gratitude from Cuyler every night.
“I’ve grown to have a lot of respect for the people here,” Cuyler said, “and what they’re doing for the community.”
“The proof is in the pudding,” Scott said, smiling. “No pun intended. Actually, pun intended.”
By Denise Buffa, Hartford Courant