- Associated Press - Saturday, February 27, 2016

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) - The kitchen at the Atlantic City Rescue Mission was a busy place at 8:30 a.m. on a recent Thursday. Chefs, all in white coats, were chopping herbs, sauteing vegetables and mixing ingredients in a 40-gallon mega brazier.

The goal was to feed a couple of hundred people, and that’s exactly what the chefs achieved with their soup of the week, Mediterranean lentil with turkey.

Atlantic City chefs and their assistants volunteer for a couple of hours every Thursday at the rescue mission to make about 600 bowls of soup for those who are staying at the mission or other homeless people. The program, 50,000 Bowls for the Hearts and Souls, aims to give the homeless community heart-healthy food options.

“As long as people are in hard times, people will need to eat,” David Goldstein, president of the Professional Chefs Association of South Jersey. Told The Press of Atlantic City (bit.ly/1LM8znH).

The program is the invention of Robert Harre, a retired restaurant chef and co-founder of Stockmasters Inc., a company that sells food items on QVC. Harre used his network to pull in other active and retired chefs in the Atlantic City area and launched the soup program in January of 2015.

What started as a small group of volunteers grew larger after more chefs pulled in colleagues and friends. Luigi Baretto and Wolfgang Geckeler were both willingly pulled out of retirement to help out in the soup kitchen. They became part of a core group of chefs who show up every Thursday to help.

“I like to help people, to get involved,” said Baretto, who had worked in casino restaurants since 1979. “And when somebody asks for help, it’s in me to do this with them.”

In all, about 18 professional chefs with different backgrounds, specialties and careers are members of the program.

And it’s not just any kind of soup that the chefs prepare for their customers.

New Orleans authentic chicken gumbo, Italian minestrone, Portuguese white bean and Pennsylvania Dutch turkey pot pie soup are just some of the 54 different creations they’ve served so far.

The goal of Bowls for the Hearts and Souls was to serve 30,000 bowls of soup by the end of 2015. On Dec. 17, they reached that milestone with a lobster tail chowder. Seashore Fruit and Produce, Formica Bros. Bakery, U.S. Foodservice, Tropicana Hotel and Casino and Keith Laudeman, president of The Lobster House, all pitched in to make it possible.

The program’s new goal is to make 20,000 more bowls of soup by the end of the year.

“We enjoy what we put out there for people,” Geckeler said. “People have to eat. What better way to give back than to cook and feed people?”

Since the program’s inception, sponsors and contributors such as the Wal-Mart Corporation, Stockton University, Food Bank of New Jersey, Cape May Court House Signarama and more have jumped in to help.

“Once the American Academy of Chefs joined us, we expanded not only the number of bowls, but from a quality standpoint,” Harre said. “We want to show people how many fresh veggies we use for these soups, which is about 125 pounds every recipe.”

Harre was honored Sunday at the chefs association’s Presidents Charity Scholarship Ball at Golden Nugget Atlantic City. American Culinary Federation national president Thomas Macrina awarded Harre with a Presidential Medallion, one of the highest awards in the academy, for his work on the soup program. The local South Jersey chapter also recognized his work with a professionalism award.

The chefs’ skills and time aren’t the only things donated to keep the program running. The Atlantic City Rescue Mission relies heavily on food bank contributions and charitable donations to keep its supplies in order.

The rescue mission provides shelter for 200 men, 50 women and 11 families. Sometimes the mission serves more than 700 meals a day.

Local farming and food companies such as Seashore Produce, M&S; Produce, B.F. Mazzeo & Sons, Custom Culinary and ShopRite donate a large portion of the fresh produce.

Tyrone Holloway, mission executive chef, always welcomes the chefs into his kitchen on Thursdays, where the soup they make can feed people for about three days. But it’s a small kitchen, one that needs equipment fixes, more cooking tools and more donations.

“You’ve got all these great chefs, and it’s not that big in here, but we know how to work with it,” he said. “But sometimes we need someone to come in here and do some tune-ups. Today we put four turkeys in the oven and two came out completely pale.”

Working in the soup kitchen has been a wake-up call, Goldstein said, one that he and the other chefs embraced. Most of them are used to cooking in well-equipped kitchens with never-ending supplies. Holloway said the mission sometimes doesn’t even have salt.

“It’s like being on (the Food Network show) ‘Chopped’ every day,” Holloway said. “You know you have a curveball coming, but you never know when it’s going to be thrown.”

Despite the challenges they face working in the rescue mission kitchen, the chefs won’t let anything stand in the way of giving people the best quality food they can.

“The ingredients and effort doesn’t change just because of the location,” Goldstein said.

Holloway said the mission is always looking for people to donate food, volunteer their skills and time, utensils and, of course, more soup bowls.

“A lot more could be done if we had more people making sure that other people had more nutritious food throughout the year,” Harre said.


Information from: The Press of Atlantic City (N.J.), https://www.pressofatlanticcity.com

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