by Michael Lesser

Chef Michael brings with him a passion for the culinary arts, love of all types of food, and shares techniques to create memorable dining experiences for our Free Food patrons.

The sounds coming out of the people’s mouths beside me are different from mine. I’m learning mantras in a new language. The letters are the same familiar ones, but it’s their arrangement that’s unfamiliar. And my brain doesn’t know what sound to tell my mouth to make.

I struggle to keep up, mostly mumbling between the few words that come out in harmony with the group.

But mostly I feel frustrated and want to spit the words out like an unfamiliar taste I’m not ready for. It reminds me of the reaction I had when my mom would make me liver and onions.

Everyone else is having so much fun with it and I feel dumb, like there’s something wrong with me. Speaking and making sounds has not been my strong suit. I don’t like the sound of my voice and tend to be on the quiet side, unless I get excited.

In the kitchen, there’s less of a language barrier. People understand me more from what goes into their mouths than what comes out of mine. I arrange individual ingredients, spices, textures, and create meals from them instead of following recipes. It has become my workshop where nothing seems impossible.

As we’re going through the food rescue items, I find a bag of farro. An unfamiliar ingredient to me, my mind spontaneously invents a warm farro salad combined with rainbow beets and pomegranate seeds topped with a slice of creamy burrata cheese also from the food rescue. So why is it that my tongue and mouth find these new words and chants unpronounceable?

Lately I’ve been interviewed and had opportunities to speak a lot more than I usually do.

But when I write, somehow the time it takes the thoughts to travel down my arm through the pen and onto the page settles me, and the words find their place.

One question I was asked, “Do you feel that you are a mentor to the men and women in programs like Exodus ATI or Housing Works?”

Honestly, the best I feel that I can do is model the experience of engaging with and facing the challenges I encounter in my life. It’s very intimate and humbling, and something I wasn’t able to do years ago when teaching at a college, hiding behind exam scores, class participation, lab attendance, and the separation that authority can create. I simply didn’t know another way to teach my students at that time in my life.

Like me, the Exodus participants and Free Food volunteers have something they need to express. A desire for connection, acceptance to be seen, to contribute. I can see and feel it after a fist bump when an Alternatives to Incarceration volunteer greets me with, “Hey Chef,” then shyly smiles and turns his head away. We all have something to contribute and are searching for the language to express the love that we feel inside for something that is bigger than us.

The volunteers I cook with have varying skills, and even experienced home cooks can feel intimidated in a modern restaurant kitchen. Facing challenges like pronouncing new words or learning a language has me be more patient and attentive, slow down when someone looks a little confused.

Many of our core volunteers who have been with us the longest are also autistic. At the end of the meal when we are cleaning up and everyone else is gone or too tired, it’s this group of volunteers that are breaking down boxes, taking out the trash, showing up at the back of the van with crates and tables and smiles on their faces.

“What can I do next?” Is a familiar request.

And often even before they have taken off their jackets or backpacks, before they put on aprons, they are wanting to know what they will be doing today.

Although we’ve grown to where we have a kitchen and dining room, it’s this group of volunteers who have helped through thick and thin times.

For Thanksgiving week, we campaigned to recruit more volunteers. Many people from the community of all ages signed up to help prepare, cook, and serve meals. There were volunteers from the local ladies’ volunteer group, members of the neighborhood board, as well as local residents. Most of them say they will be back.

During the busy Thanksgiving week, I heard a loud whistle followed by “Hey!” As I pulled the van away from the curb in front of the church. I stopped and got out to see if I hit something behind me.

A man approached me and asked if I could help him pick up his grill on 116th Street.
He didn’t know me, and at first, I didn’t recognize him.

It was late and we’d been cooking and serving meals for two days, but still, something inside me said yes.

He thanked me and took a seat next to me. He explained he had gotten a request to serve his food on 116th and that he makes Jerk chicken and Caribbean food. It was then that I recognized him as one of the street chefs who cooks in a black tent and wears a headlamp to see.

As we drove, I asked how he got his grill to 116th.

“Same way as this, I flagged down someone with a van.”

His grill is a large, heavy charcoal burning type, and moving it requires some effort and resources, like a van.

And then he told me, without knowing anything about me or Free Food, that he could tell I was a Samaritan.

I felt a simple easeful connection with this stranger who also spends his time feeding people. I also admired his simple confidence that he could rely on others to randomly help him.

At 116th, we were met by his son and friends who helped load and unload it at its destination. When we finished up, he gave me his number and invited me for a Jerk Chicken meal on the street corner where the Free Food Harlem church is located, where I cook every day.

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