Chef Tommy Carlucci arrives around 8 to get things started. Today’s menu is macaroni and cheese with chard from Common Hands Farm, and hot Italian sausage from Pigasso Farms. For 40 pounds of pasta, Tommy sets four enormous pots of water to boil, and pre-heats the oven for the sausage. By 9 when volunteers start turning up, the kitchen is already a steam bath.
Three or four volunteers help every weekday. Each team has found its own division of labor. On Wednesdays it’s Dee, Kathy and Jonathan. Dee usually dishes out, taking care to keep the portions equal. The others call Kathy “the Lid Lady;” she mainly garnishes the plates, snaps their covers on and stacks them. Jonathan mixes the tubs of pasta and sauce, and does a little of whatever else needs doing.
Tommy has spent a lifetime in kitchens. What’s the difference between the volunteer teams and the staff in a restaurant? “The volunteers are all kindred spirits, here for the same reason,” he says. “In a professional kitchen—not that they don’t enjoy it—but they’re there for the money. And of any five, there are probably two I’d take to my grave with me, but the others are most likely transients.”
There’s almost always a little more food prepared than will be delivered. This day the team’s target is 176 dinners, but they end up with 210. Extras don’t go to waste; on his way home, Tommy will deliver some to each of three free-food fridges. On other days overage might go to the Salvation Army’s kitchen, or to the Hudson Youth Center.
Tommy likes to have music on. It’s usually 80s and 90s folk or rock. This morning, though, it’s a playlist of Sanskrit chants, which prompts a conversation about karma. It also inspires him to muse, “What about a curry sometime? We haven’t done that.” Karma isn’t the only mystery in this kitchen. Cases of plates and lids arrive from the supplier with equal numbers of each. But at CCRK there are always lids left over. Who can say why?
What have the volunteers learned from their participation? “The presentation is so important,” Kathy says. “If the meals don’t look appetizing, people won’t like them.” Dee was sobered to realize that “so many people are hungry. In this country! And here we’re only scratching the surface.”
By the time the volunteers are finishing up, Tommy is beginning to prep for Thursday’s meal. “Next Wednesday,” he tells his helpers, we’re going to continue exploring the possibilities of macaroni and cheese. But I think it will be fettuccini with tomato cream, plus whatever protein and fresh greens we’ve got.”
It’s 10:45. The work tables are wiped spotless. The stove is off. Dinners are stacked five high, waiting for the delivery volunteers who’ll collect them in the afternoon. Dee, Kathy and Jonathan are gone. Tommy is on the phone with the wholesaler, ordering supplies. Sanskrit chants are still murmuring in the background.