Good Life

Eats & Drinks: Community Cafe models itself after Food Network’s ‘Chopped’

Olivia Sparks, a missionary with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, stirs soup last week at the Community Cafe at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church.
Olivia Sparks, a missionary with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, stirs soup last week at the Community Cafe at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. CDT photo

Every Thursday evening, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church has a live version of the popular “Chopped” Food Network show. When I walked into the building during a recent visit, I followed my nose as the homey aroma of roasting chicken led me down the hallway toward the kitchen. Closer, I heard several voices in conversation, chuckling. When I entered the kitchen, a woman immediately asked me if I would like half a bagel and thrust a toasted and buttered Irving’s bagel on my grateful palm. A fellow feeder!

Jane Danz, my bagel’s generous better half, filled me in on what was going on in the bright kitchen where an assortment of people busied themselves preparing to serve dinner. In addition to two young men at attention near the dishwashing machine, there were a few men in maroon aprons, clearly in charge since they all matched and had the St. Andrew’s logo on their bibs. Other aproned volunteers moved around the kitchen, setting up slow cookers and rooting out serving utensils. Barry Kerr stood near the oven and pulled out a sheet pan and proceeded to turn quartered potatoes with a long spatula to ensure even crisping. He bit into one and gave a nod to his fellow sous chefs. They were done and ready to be transferred to hotel pans and lined up in the steam table for service.

Dave Will, maroon apron, strained a pot of chicken stock and set it aside to cool then turned his attention to the simmering stockpot on the stove soon to be filled with Trader Joe’s donated pasta for one of the two soup offerings, Tortellini en Brodo. A vegan chili simmered on the stove, bright with tomatoes, beans and corn.

The Community Café has been serving all comers on Thursdays at the church since March of 2009, when it started as a soup kitchen. St. Andrew’s was the site of the Food Bank of the State College Area, which operated out of the basement of the church from 1982 to 2007. The “food-centric” volunteers missed the interaction with the community and created soup-and-bread suppers as an outreach mission.

Danz recalls that the organizers hoped that the initiative would spur other churches in the downtown vicinity to utilize their church kitchens and make a hot meal available every day so there was always an option for anyone who was hungry. Currently there is a Bread Basket meal at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church and Wesley Foundation on Wednesdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. that serves soup, bread and pastries during Penn State spring and fall semesters. This week’s free lunch is the last one until the fall.

Ron Rovansek coordinates the Community Café program and described how it moved beyond soup a few years ago.

“We have a Thanksgiving Dinner every year and it occurred to us that we were able to serve more than just soup and bread,” he said. “We operate the café on donations — Trader Joe’s, Wegman’s, the Weis Market on North Atherton Street, Irving’s, Honey Baked Ham — and we are able to offer an entrée, side vegetables, breads, salad and desserts in addition to two soups. There are volunteers that work throughout the week to gather the food that would be headed to the dumpster because it reached its sell-by date but was still perfectly usable. We freeze what we can and gradually get enough to serve as a main course and fill in with what else comes in fresh.”

A National Geographic article published in October cited an alarming statistic. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “one-third of food produced for human consumption worldwide is annually lost or wasted along the chain that stretches from farms to processing plants, marketplaces, retailers, food-service operations and our collective kitchens.” The Community Café helps to salvage some of that waste in State College.

“It’s like one of those cooking shows,” Danz said.

“Chopped,” added Rovansek. “The ingredients vary depending on donations, so we don’t always know what we will have on hand on any certain day. The food comes in and the teams of volunteer chefs cook it up.”

Dave Will has been volunteering since January and enjoys the weekly cooking challenge. Not a member of the congregation, Will went to a Thursday dinner at the church in November and thought that it looked like a great opportunity to volunteer, use his culinary talents, and serve the State College community.

“I like to cook, always have. This is a great outlet and we have a lot of fun,” he said.

As the clock ticked toward 5 p.m., there was a steady stream of new volunteers streaming into the kitchen, and the day crew removed their aprons and passed them on to the night crew. The tables in the dining room started to fill up and a line moved toward the window for a look at this evening’s sample plate.

Another weekly Community Café dinner was launched, another small miracle whisked up in “Heaven’s Kitchen” for the benefit of all.