Transforming Donations into Culinary Comfort

Walking into the Caritas of Austin Community Kitchen is an incredible sensory experience – and it’s unique every day. On Monday, the tantalizing smell of a simmering housemade marinara sauce wafts down the hallway, while on Tuesday you’ll find a team of volunteers busily chopping fresh vegetables for turkey pot pie. Unlike most dining establishments, there is no set menu in the Community Kitchen – yet each day’s meal is prepared with special care to ensure that it’s not only well-balanced, but also tastes good and provides plenty of nutrition.

One unique aspect of weekly meal planning for Jen Mattson and Brandon Harrison – Caritas’ culinary staff duo – is the fact that the majority of food comes through community donations. They make creativity a central part of their planning process. For example, when a restaurant donated meatballs, beef, and sautéed mushrooms, our team combined them with sour cream over pasta to make a classic comfort food: beef stroganoff. Fresh veggies are another favorite ingredient of the team’s. Table centerpieces from our Words of Hope Dinner (arrangements of herbs donated from Urban Roots, artichokes, broccoli, and cauliflower) were transformed into several hearty dishes the next week: chicken with artichoke cream sauce; roasted broccoli and cauliflower with garlic and olive oil; and a beef stew with sweet potato.

“It’s like the TV show Chopped where you’re given certain ingredients. It’s our job to determine how soon the item needs to be utilized and how we make that stretch into a number that’s going to feed enough people,” said Mattson.

On average, 250 diners count on the Community Kitchen for their lunch meal. To make this possible, the Caritas team starts working at 7:00am each morning and focuses on the parts of the day’s meals that need the longest preparation. By 9:00am, they have prep stations set up throughout the dining room for the day’s volunteers.

Each day, 8-12 volunteers help prepare and serve lunch. Volunteers range from individuals who come every week to corporate groups looking for a one-time opportunity to give back. “There’s not much standing around here. When volunteers show up, we are ready for them. It’s important to us to make sure volunteers have a good experience,” said Harrison.

The majority of the Community Kitchen’s diners are regulars, which means staff and volunteers come to know each person’s preferences or dietary restrictions and work to ensure every person’s needs are met. “It’s like owning a restaurant and having regular customers. We know this guy doesn’t eat pork and this woman is allergic to onions,” said Mattson. She adds that the team feels very recognized and appreciated for the lengths they go to in accommodating each person’s needs. They offer vegetarian and vegan options, along with alternatives for anyone who has an allergy.

Harrison and Mattson say that diners are very honest about their opinions of each day’s meal. “It’s about being heard,” said Mattson. “If they like it, they tell us. But there is always an opportunity to critique too, which can be therapeutic. A palette is a palette, and we value everyone’s feedback because they are usually right.”

The Caritas of Austin team strives to make every day’s meal as nutritious and well-rounded as possible, knowing that physical wellbeing is the foundation to thriving in other areas of life. In recent years, the proportions of fresh fruit, vegetables and protein have increased, taking the Community Kitchen’s meals far beyond the “soup kitchen” stereotype.

For volunteers, it’s the human interaction with diners that leaves the biggest impact and keeps them coming back. “People like to be on the line to serve. They know what that is and they get to interact. Some prefer to do dishes. People like to serve desserts as well – they know they will be popular!” says Mattson. If you haven’t had the opportunity to serve in the Community Kitchen, now is the time! We have several dates available to fill in October – a great opportunity for individuals or groups. Bring your friends, co-workers, faith groups, or family in for a day of service you won’t soon forget. Learn more and get started!