Michael and Eugene cook together at Free Food Harlem
by Caryn Roth
Interview with Eugene, a dedicated volunteer and sous chef with Free Food Harlem, who comes every week to share his heart and cooking with those on the streets.
How did you start volunteering with Free Food?
My friend posted about the volunteer opportunity on social media, and I realized that the site where they were hosting the Free Food meal was right near where I had stayed when I had been homeless seven years ago. It really brought me back to that time. I told myself that I would give back when I was homeless, that I was going to reach out to the people who helped me at the shelter and others. The mentors I had over there, they were really helpful for me. They took me through being homeless, through getting my GED, then getting housing and going to a four-year college. That was what motivated me to give back. It was an instantaneous feeling of wanting to contribute.
How has it felt to be giving back right in the place you used to be homeless yourself?
I’ve got a nostalgic feeling of where I was several years ago. When I see other men who are in that shelter, it brings me back to who I was back then. I was standing in their shoes trying to navigate the homeless shelter system. I didn’t have enough food to eat, and was trying to figure out what to do, who I could trust. As a single black man, it’s very difficult to get housing. The priorities go to pregnant women and people fleeing domestic violence or people with mental health issues. But lots of black men are still struggling. So now at Free Food, it’s been a touching experience to see these men now and get to talk to them, give them insights into how to navigate the process. It brings me back to that time for myself.
What was being homeless like for you?
When I was homeless, I was at the lowest point of my life. I did not want to live. I was tired of people. I was sick and tired of the obstacles and waking up in the morning. I was completely shut down. It was hard for me to talk about what I was going through, the depression I was facing. It took a long time because I was afraid of opening up to people. I was scared. I had to defend myself. I had to do things to survive. As humans, overcoming these obstacles becomes our strength that makes us who we are. It taught me to be strategic, innovative, creative, and look beyond the obstacles.
When I come to Free Food, I look at the people and imagine what they’re going through. But beyond that I see strength, resilience, vulnerability, determination. I see a willingness to grow and seek help. Behind the struggles, the sadness, the obstacles, I see cheerful people who put their problems at the doorstep. When they come in for the meals, they are just happy, enlivened, overjoyed by the food, the people, the experiences. These are the things I see. I don’t see their problems, I see them as beings, which is really important.
What was the food like when you were homeless? How does it compare to what Free Food serves?
When I was homeless, I didn’t have a choice of what to eat. If it was cold food, milk, bread, peanut butter and jelly, an apple, I’d eat it. I didn’t have options. I wasn’t picky about it. At Free Food, the food is great. We make it ourselves. We make it out of our hearts. You may think that we’re just making food, but we’re putting love, joy, harmony, peace, and all that good stuff into our food, and that’s what’s important.
The way we serve people, the way we carry ourselves, differentiates ourselves from other food pantries. People can feel the difference. Other food pantries don’t do a restaurant setting of serving people, it’s just here’s some food, take it. Our service embodies genuine love and care: it’s impactful. It makes a difference.
Have you always loved to cook?
Yes, I always loved to cook. I inherited it from my grandmother while I was in West Africa. Cooking was a way in which we showed our love, harmony, communication. It was a way of bringing people together, honoring them, showing respect. Whenever I cook at Free Food, I bring those things with me. I think of ways that would be innovative and creative for us to serve people. I always want to bring my culture, my learnings, what my grandmother taught me to serve others. Back home my grandmother would feed everyone in the community. She was so loved. My neighborhood was notoriously filled with crimes. The majority of houses were robbed but hers was never robbed. She served everyone — her doors were open to everyone. I want to embody that spirit wherever I go in Free Food.
What do you think people who are homeless get by coming to Free Food?
They get a lot. They get food. They get a community that supports them, a listening ear, a friend, someone who understands them, hope. You know, just the small words telling them that it’s going to be alright or that they’re going to make it, that they’re going to get through this. It’s all so impactful, and it means a lot and carries substance. These are the things that touch our hearts. You never know, maybe the person you were talking to is about to commit suicide but through your words, through your kind actions, through you speaking to them it changes their mind to believe that there’s a purpose in living. It could happen to me, it could happen to you, it could happen to anyone. I think we always have to step into someone’s shoes. When I come to Free Food my mindset is to give my all. To touch someone’s life, and to make a difference.