by Michael Lesser

As a young engineer, I worked in a factory that made products from metal.

There were machines to bend, cut, weld, and form seemingly solid metal into something different than the original form. I’m no stranger to alchemy, crucibles, and changing forms.

In that regard, cooking has a magical, mystical element of changing one thing into something else, using heat and cold, or a combination of both, aromatic scents and textures, pressure, and expansion.

At the beginning of my day, when the kitchen is still at rest, before the heat, before the fans are on, when the lights are low, it feels like a laboratory or artist’s studio where anything is possible.

It’s July, and the kitchen is hot, especially with all the ovens going, and a few of the high-capacity stove burners on full blast.

I remember the kitchens that I grew up in. Hot, hot, hot! Tempers also flared. It was a harsh environment that supported rough treatment.

When I was thirteen years old, the chef would chase me around the kitchen poking me in the butt with a knife. It was how we were disciplined and kept in line. If I was lucky, and the chef was in a good mood, he would show me something, a technique, a sauce, a special cutting method.

Now that I’m the head chef, I find myself wondering what kind of chef do I want to be.

When I use the techniques I’ve learned, my mind flashes back to a memory of the people who taught me. Pascal taught me about sauces and sauté as we created a choreographed dance routine on the line. William showed me how to light the stove as flames billowed out to engulf his head, including his suede cowboy hat, mustache, and beard.

As the chef for a nonprofit that relies entirely on volunteers, I’ve had to learn how to motivate and inspire others instead of resorting to the harsh and intimidating treatment I received as a young and eager cook. The volunteers are there because they want to be there, not because they have to.

It’s a softer approach that sometimes means slowing down and answering questions.

The questions often open up the door to sharing my passion and vision and hopefully connecting on a deeper level.

When I was young, I also wanted to learn how to fix things. I volunteered at the neighborhood bicycle shop and learned how to assemble bikes, fix flats, and change tires. When my best friend’s older brother found a motorcycle in a river, I learned to be a motorcycle mechanic by helping him restore a classic Ducati motorcycle.

I learned to be a good follower by anticipating which tools he needed and thinking how I could assist him. It gave me great satisfaction to be a few steps ahead and ready with the right wrench, or with parts already cleaned and lubricated.

I was often in trouble with the authorities and at school for acting out and not following the rules. My friend’s brother cared enough about me to keep me busy and teach me at a pace I could understand with an experiential style.

Once a week I co-facilitate The Art of Soulmaking course at Exodus, which is just down the street from our Free Food Harlem kitchen.

It’s an introspective journey where participants are encouraged to learn how to look at their lives from a different perspective.

One week’s lesson is how to harvest pain and turn poison into medicine. It’s an introduction to the alchemy of life.

When the class sinks in, I am one of them. I have the same feelings, regrets, desires, failures, hopes, and dreams for my life, as well as the places where I fall short of my vision.

We all share our deep heartfelt experiences in life. By the end of the eight-week sessions, I can feel a change in the men and women, not just in the classroom but also when they come to our kitchen skill class. There is a willingness, and a crispness in the way they work now. They still like to talk smack to one another and it’s fun, but they also are more attentive, get more prep done, and last week several students made sure to remind the group to clean up their stations before they left. It’s as if they realized their value and the impact they have on this meal that will serve 500-600 people. People just like them, from their community, who need a break, a delicious home-cooked meal, and a place to relax and just be.

Most of us take for granted that we can just buy a meal, sit down, and have a place to eat it.

Thursday is the day I go to the restaurant supply store to get the remaining ingredients and supplies needed for our weekly meal that have not been donated.

Think of a mega supermarket at least a city block long, and you can imagine the magnitude of the aisles and aisles of supersized cans, cases, and barrel-sized bottles of oils, sauces, and condiments.

On this particular Thursday, I have an Exodus volunteer to help me with the afternoon trip. He’s alternatively quiet and talkative. He tells me about the neighborhood where he grew up, about his mother, father, and seven siblings.

“My mother, she had too many kids. She couldn’t take care of them all.” He describes a family trip to Florida where he and one brother were left behind at a trailer park to fend for themselves. Prior to that stop, two of his sisters were also dropped off. “Oh man, it took us a year to get back to New York.”

I park the Free Food van, and he immediately walks away to get a cart. I join him at the entry of the store. There is a threshold, and he anticipates the bump and shifts over so that we can both lift up and pull the cart together.

Inside the store he scouts ahead looking for the items we’ll need to load onto the cart.

And at the checkout when I’m given the receipt, he casually says, “Don’t put that away, you’re gonna’ need it cause they’re gonna’ check it before we leave.”

This man has something inside of him, a wisdom that tells him the truth and he instinctively knows what to do next. I am fortunate, despite the layers of emotions, hurt and disappointment that go along with being underestimated and dismissed, that I get to see that part of him. I, too, know that feeling of being judged — that despite all the external world tells you — the strength it takes to believe at your core that you have something valid and true to say and your existence matters.

Throughout my career, I’ve had the opportunity to be both a leader and follower. I’ve also realized I’m a much better follower than leader — a really great second. And I’ve had judgments that it’s more prestigious to lead than follow. Learning to accept this about myself and admit how much I enjoy assisting, staying one step ahead and collaborating with others to fulfill a vision has been part of my journey, my alchemy.

Softening the way I relate to people in the heat of the moment when getting 500 meals out on time has been the result of this past year of volunteering and leading a group of other volunteers. It has alchemized something within me.

So what kind of chef do I want to be? What kind of leader do I want to be to the men and women whose life lessons are much harsher than the hot-tempered chefs and hot kitchen days I’ve had? The kind that remembers where I came from, the people who were there for me, even when I didn’t believe in myself, and how I got to where I am now as the head chef of a nonprofit that makes a free meal for anyone who wants one.

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