New Culinary partnership with Caritas of Port Chester

Cooking for a cause

Special partnership helps culinary students learn, help community

Faced with the need to prepare 250 pounds of sole, 300 pounds of venison and 300 pounds of Brussels sprouts might be enough to cause an aspiring chef to run out of the kitchen screaming. However, not the students in the Culinary Arts program at Southern Westchester BOCES. They viewed it as a challenge – one that would improve their cooking skills and help the community.

Prepping hundreds of pounds of protein and vegetables was part of a new partnership between the culinary program and Caritas of Port Chester, a soup kitchen that provides two meals a day during the week to those in need.

Students received the food from the organization and were responsible for deciding what recipes would be best to prepare using the available ingredients. They cooked up batches of stews, soups and meatloaf with the venison. They filleted the sole, breaded it and sealed it so it would freeze well. They also chopped the abundance of sprouts.

“We set up an assembly line,” said Chef John Damiani, adding that it took both his morning and afternoon classes a day and half to prepare the food during one week in January.

Student Sean Gooden said he viewed the several hundred pounds of food that needed to be prepared as a mission for him and his classmates to conquer.

“It had to get done,” he said. “We made sure it was made with love. I hoped they enjoyed it.”

This is the first time the culinary program and Caritas of Port Chester have worked together. This impressive operation will not be the last as both hope to continue the partnership into the future.

“It’s a wonderful partnership,” Chef Damiani said. “It’s really amazing. My goal is to have our students visit the soup kitchen and serve the food they prepared.”

Caritas of Port Chester began operating out of a local church more than 20 years ago with a once-a-week soup dinner. The soup kitchen opened in 2003, expanding to serve breakfast and lunch on weekdays. In 2012, it received its non-profit status and adopted its current name. It also operates a food pantry on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

During lunch on Feb. 5, Bill Cusano, the executive director of Caritas of Port Chester, said the soup kitchen served the fish that BOCES students had prepared last month and froze for them. They had seven trays of fish ready that would feed more than 200 people.

Flexibility is key to the work that the pantry and students are doing, Mr. Cusano said. The soup kitchen does not always know ahead of time what foods will be available to them. They collect perishable foods from area grocery stores that are near their expiration date that the store can no longer sell. They also get an assortment of donations from individuals and other agencies, such as Feeding Westchester. In addition, they sometimes receive food from hunters due to a state program that enables fresh game to be donated. Nevertheless, the particulars – how much food, what type of food and when they will receive the food – are all variables.

Because the soup kitchen does not have much storage space, it must deci de what to do with the perishable food they receive as quickly as possible. By working with the culinary program, Mr. Cusano is able to reach out to the chefs there and let them know what food he has available. The chefs then decide what they can do with it and how the students can incorporate the recipes and preparation into their curriculum.

With the aforementioned fish, Mr. Cusano said his program is grateful that it was prepared and ready to go. On the day it was served, he was short-staffed; however, all the volunteers had to do was take the fish out of the freezer and cook it. There was enough food that several clients could take some home for another meal.

“The benefit to us is we can serve more people,” Mr. Cusano said, explaining that the food is already prepared before arriving at Caritas of Port Chester, which cuts down on the time it takes before they can serve it.

In addition, the partnership enables a wider variety of meals to be prepared and served.

“It’s something more creative that our guests normally wouldn’t have,” Mr. Cusano said. “We have more variety and the folks love it.”

“I like to give back to people before myself,” Sean said about the partnership, in which students also earn work-based learning hours.

“It’s like a blessing to be able to help others,” added fellow student Jaylen Anderson. “If you are struggling that hard, you would want someone to do that for you.”