- Associated Press - Saturday, November 26, 2016

GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) - On a recent fall evening, dinner is about to be served at a well-known downtown establishment. People mill about waiting for the start of the three-course meal that on this night includes ramen with homemade noodles, fresh kimchi and a delectable graham torte with chocolate ganache and a Swiss meringue.

With the flickering candlelight, the soft music and the tables decked out with white table cloths, it is easy to forget that you are standing inside the dining room at Project Host. On this evening, the soup kitchen’s daytime identity is not changed, but is for a moment, different.

The dinner is an apt place to begin a discussion about Project Host’s future. The soup kitchen is nothing if not evolving. What began as a just a soup kitchen in 1981, has grown to include a culinary school, a garden and greenhouse, a monthly dining experience and a concerted program that feeds hundreds of children every day. And in November, Project Host added a retail bakery arm as well. The move is part of the organization’s efforts to once again adapt.

“All those things, we didn’t wake up one morning and decide well this is what we need to do,” said Sally Green, executive director of Project Host, who’s been with the organization over 20 years. “We’ve been approached through somebody in the community about a need and then try to work with that. So we look at what’s going on around us and think is the soup kitchen going to be where it needs to be in five years?”

Exactly what the need is, is becoming a bit unclear. Thanks to a shifting neighborhood demographic, after over 30 years in the same spot at 525 S. Academy St., Project Host is faced with a declining clientele, Green said. The number of people seeking meals each day has gone down significantly, and while there is still a need, Green said that she’s seeing a definite shift.

“If you go towards St. Francis, the houses that used to be cut up into rooms or apartments for rent are now being torn down and being halfway built back into single family homes again,” Green said. “So there is such a change, along with a lot of the land around here is just turning into condoville. It’s just crazy.

“The soup kitchen will be here as long as this is where it needs to be.”

Crafting something new

By just before 7 p.m., the first course is making its way to the tables. Servers (all current and past CC Pearce students) make their way with bowls of a delicate miso, apple and celery salad topped with three sesame ginger chicken wings.

“Some think $30? That’s a lot for dinner,” said Allen Hellenga, development director for Project Host. “But you don’t’ leave hungry.”

These Community Dinners, as they are known, are the brainchild of Tobin Simpson. The classically trained chef joined the staff at Project Host as director and culinary instructor of the CC Pearce Culinary School in 2011, and he has been putting his decidedly chef’s touch on the program ever since.

He launched the third Thursday monthly dinners with several goals in mind. First and foremost, to offer his students a chance to practice their skills and a chance to make some money while in the program. Students get paid for the time they work. Secondly, the dinners are a way to bring the community inside Project Host, essentially breaking down the walls of preconceptions. And thirdly, the dinners are a chance to show diners and students what the culinary school is all about.

“So it’s really really composed, like fine dining composed,” Simpson says of the dishes he and the students create each month. “That’s my background coming here, so I wanna challenge these guys, we wanna put on a good show, we want them to be doing something they can be proud of.”

Under Simpson’s direction, the culinary school has helped provide for the Feeding Hungry Children Project. The benefit is twofold, the CC Pearce students get ample hands on experience, making over 600 meals a day and hundreds of children, who might not otherwise, get healthy meals.

The Project Host garden has also flourished since Simpson’s arrival. Most recently, the garden benefited from a $10,000 Fluor Global Community Fund Project grant, which allowed Project Host to construct a hydroponic growing system, new beds and compost bins. The hydroponic system allows them to grow fresh vegetables from seeds in much less time. On this recent evening, the garden was already sprouting new heads of kale that had been planted from seeds just a week before.

The food grown is then funneled back into the soup kitchen and the culinary school.

“With the soup kitchen we try and put the best nutrition in the meals we can,” says Jill Mashburn, the Fluor employee that nominated Project Host for the grant. “So being able to grow from a tiny pack of seeds and it makes heads of lettuce four weeks later, is incredible.

“Sometimes the most expensive ingredients to put in meals are the vegetables so we’re really really proud of this.”

Simpson launched the dinners five years ago, but they have slowly been getting more and more creative. The menus are a product of what can be sourced locally (the evening’s ramen broth was made with Greenbrier Farms beef bones) and Simpson’s imagination. And the chef has a really great imagination. Past meals have included lamb kabobs with cous cous and hummus and scratch made baklava, beef bourguignon and beef wellington.

“This time we’re having fun,” Simpson said with a smile. “I just wanted to see who would show up for ramen, actually.”

On this evening, quite a few have. The dining room, which can accommodate about 80 people is about two thirds full. Some people are first timers but many are returning diners. Mashburn, who is also a member of Project Host’s board had brought several of her coworkers.

“I always try to bring new people,” Mashburn said between bites of her ginger scallion tofu (the evening’s vegetarian appetizer option).

No one has been disappointed yet.

Creating work

On the line pre-service, Debra Robinson stands diligently chopping Portobello mushrooms. The ingredient will be used in the vegetarian version of the ramen entree. Robinson, who everybody calls Ms. D, is a former student but returns to work these dinners every once in a while. She likes them, she said, because she likes seeing friends, she likes Chef Tobin and she gets paid.

“We’re really trying to create work opportunities for our students because they’re not getting paid while they’re in class,” Hellenga said. “We do catering, and so this also gives our students an opportunity to work, put their new skills to use.”

The CC Pearce Culinary School is part of a broader effort to address the causes of hunger and poverty within the Greenville community. The school was founded with the express mission of providing people the skills they need to get jobs. Students move through a 12-week program that includes everything from basic knife skills and making stocks to what Hellenga calls “employment readiness skills,” like how to communicate with coworkers, hygiene and appropriate dress for the work environment.

“Our goal is to equip our students with the skills they need to get a job in food service,” Hellenga says. “Everyone’s skill level will be different, so really wherever they are, we try to work with them at that level. Our goal is to improve their financial ability.”

And adding a new retail arm will help with that.

Looking toward the future

Thirty minutes before service, the kitchen is humming with activity. The ding of timers, the cling of spoons, the steady rhythm of knives slicing, is a comfortable din of cooking. Everyone has a job.

Tonight, there is one more person present as well. Mallory Boyd is working her second day in the CC Pearce kitchen as Project Host’s new pastry chef. The job is so new that Boyd, who interned with Project Host while in school at Furman, isn’t even sure what her title is.

But Boyd, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, is at home in this kitchen, and her presence is the start of a shift for Project Host. First and foremost, Boyd will be creating a pastry and baking curriculum to go along with the culinary program, but she also will help lead efforts to grow the Project Host Bakery market as well. The pastry program will give students more specialized skills while the retail bakery will create a steady income stream for Project Host.

“It allows the public to know we’re trying to move forward,” Boyd said. “And it begins to get our brand out there, both Project Host and the bakery at Project Host.”

Boyd will begin efforts this holiday season. Project Host will sell a variety of pies, cookies and other pastry products through a reservation-only system. Then come spring, Boyd will help roll out a larger bevy of goods to sell at farmers markets and other retail outlets.

If things go well, the retail could lead to a brick and mortar location as well.

For now, such plans are on a “wait and see basis,” but Green and her team are planning for a changing Greenville. Already, Green says, she’s seen the numbers of people at Project Host’s soup kitchen dip. Where they used to feed about 275 meals a day by the end of the month (a time when budgets are tighter), and now, it’s more like 150, Green said.

“I would love to say I don’t think we would need the soup kitchen in five years, but I’m afraid that’s not that truth,” Green said.

But the neighborhood is shifting, Green said, so in the spirit of being proactive, Green and her team are looking at the possibility of opening another soup kitchen location. It could be that then Project Host would operate two, or that they would close the one on Academy and turn the space into a retail bakery.

But exact plans remain to be seen, Green said.

“That’s what we don’t want to happen is that we sit here and do nothing at all and not work these scenarios and then all of a sudden we’re in the wrong place,’ she said. “So we’re doing our homework, talking to other agencies, the United Way and Greenville Health System, about where do they think we need to be, how can we get there and what we need to do.”

Spreading the word

By 8 p.m., the entrĂ©e plates are being cleared, and dessert is making its way to the table. The graham caramel torte with chocolate ganache and Swiss meringue, like the rest of the evening’s dishes elicits oohs and ahhs. These meals do more than all that though, Hellenga said, they bring people in the door. They are a tangible way to show people what Project Host and the culinary students can do.

“Food is always a good way to get somebody to come,” Hellenga said. “It also creates awareness to the general public. We’re able to get people here that wouldn’t otherwise come.”

Each dinner brings in about $400 to $1,000 which goes directly to funding the organization’s needs for equipment, food and maintenance.

But it’s not just about the money. At the end of each meal, everyone - instructors, students, servers - comes out to receive their praise. There, standing in a line, in crisp white chefs coats, it was hard not to notice the sense of pride. As if each clap, each cheer, pushed them to stand just a little taller.

“I definitely don’t want the students to feel like they can’t be proud of what it is we’re doing,” Simpson said. “So we’re going to push the envelope and make sure they feel like they created something that was on par with anything else in Greenville.

He pauses from chopping scallions to direct a student where to put a pot of edamame.

“Not to sound egotistical…but I’m proud of em,” Simpson said with a grin. “They do a good job every. Single. Time.”

Due to the holidays, the next Community Dinner will be Dec. 1. To find out more about Project Host and the Community Dinners, visit www.projecthost.org, or e-mail to [email protected] or call 864-282-1994.

Project Host will be offering specialty baked goods for the holidays including cookie platters in December (orders must be placed by Dec. 12). To place an order, e-mail to [email protected]

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Information from: The Greenville News, https://www.greenvillenews.com

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