Cooking up magic in the TASK kitchen
Bruce is already sitting on a crate outside the side door at TASK in the crisp morning air, alone, reading a newspaper. A bright blue morning sky is kissed by wispy clouds. It’s going to be a very hot and humid day.
He greets the “cat lady,” who comes along to feed stray cats nearby. Bruce tells me she feeds them every day, in snow and rain, no matter what, and he says they have all been “fixed” by the animal shelter next door.
Ron and Lisa H. arrive. They have the key to open the side door. We all make our way into the quiet and the darkness of the TASK kitchen.
Bruce stops by the washer, located in the receiving area, behind the kitchen, pulls out the wet dishrags laundered the evening before and pops them in the dryer. Then he walks back through the kitchen and opens the door to the dishwashing area from the dining room, puts on an apron.
Ron and Lisa roll out two tall racks of prepared dessert trays from the refrigerator and station them near the service area, where volunteers will place one serving on each meal tray later, at meal time.
Lisa fortifies herself with a long drink from a huge blue bottle of water. She’s ready to assemble the ingredients she needs to make enough salad for the 1000 people the kitchen expects to feed today.
Someone has turned on a faucet and hot water trickles into the bank of warming trays in the serving area.
The kitchen feels cool and quiet.
Everyone goes about their business quietly. Clean, cool stainless steel counters shine, ready.
Lisa starts to slit open plastic bags of cut lettuce from 4 boxes on a plastic wheeled cart and empties contents in the sanitized sink – the sink she uses every morning. That’s her station.
The noise level starts to rise. We can hear the carts cooks are using to transport large quantities of vegetables and rice as they bump along the terra cotta tile floor and sheet pans clanking together as Bruce empties, then fills, the dishwasher in the washroom.
He fills a huge white plastic bin with ice cubes he scoops from the ice maker, starts the dishwasher. He makes up juice from concentrate in five 10-gallon insulated jugs loaded with the ice. He stows them under the counter in the serving area. That should be enough for the day’s two meals.
Ron starts to prep parts of the evening meal: rice, barbecued pork (which volunteers had lined up on sheet pans and rubbed with a spice mixture the night before), corn on the cob.
Mike and Dante come in and promptly set up chairs in the dining room. They had folded and stacked them on the tables the night before to make mopping the floor more efficient.
There’s knocking at the back door — it’s already hot and humid — a patron needs water. He fills up from the insulated container near the door that Bruce keeps fresh.
Ron turns on the tall floor ovens. Their blue side lights glow neon bright. He is busy working on 6 trays of rice in a steamer, 3 deep trays of black beans, 2 racks full (26 sheet pans) of pork chops (20-25 per pan).
One second, Bruce completes filling the thermoses with ice and juice. The next, he is dragging 11 heavy 3’ x 6’ floor mats into place, one at a time, on the kitchen floor, near each cook’s station, to help with nonslip and cushioning. He had washed them the afternoon before.
Ron glugs barbecue sauce into a huge pot on the stove and sets about finding what he’ll use to season it and make it stretch.
Bruce takes out the first of the day’s garbage – two bulging 32-gal bags at a time. He’ll make many more such trips today.
Lisa H. says her favorite part of the day is making up meal trays for the satellite locations — anywhere from 320 to 500 trays per day. She and her colleagues work long hours, on their feet. She can make up 75 trays in 15 minutes by herself, but she prefers to work with a volunteer, assembly-line style.
Lisa mentions that volunteers need to be trained every day because they are new to the kitchen every day. Cooks are very patient with them. You can hear lots of gentle banter among them in the kitchen.
Cooks mind the deadlines. Green and blue insulated food transport boxes, each the size of a mini fridge, have to be loaded with hundreds of individual meal trays and ready for transport by 3 p.m. The Rescue Mission and Trenton Circus Squad lunch trays have to be ready by 11:30 every day.
Paul, Kitchen Manager, strolls in, chipper, as usual.
After Lisa completes 12 tubs of salad, she starts tearing 75 2½-foot lengths of foil to wrap lunch trays for the Rescue Mission down the street.
Radio plays light rock music.
It’s still just the five of them in the kitchen.
Water is running in a deep sink.
Bruce rolls a trolley of boxed oranges to the sink. He dumps the oranges in the rising water. They bob to the surface. He sorts and washes them, taking out the ones we cannot serve. There are quite a few. TASK will request a refund for those.
Ron is stirring barbecue sauce on the stove, bubbling in a deep stockpot.
The chop-chop-chop of a knife against a plastic cutting board can now be heard.
Like magic, 20 pounds of large white onions sliced last night by a volunteer seem to appear, hissing and translucent in one of two 40-gallon tilt skillets. It’s a gleaming piece of equipment that stands waist-high and is 3 feet wide, 2½ feet long and 10 inches deep. Paul calls it “a fry pan on steroids”!
200 pounds of ground beef rest on a cart in rolls 8” in diameter and more than a yard long. Bright red. The makings of 600 meals of Sloppy Joe for the day’s early meal.
Bruce walks by with a milk crate filled with freshly laundered dish rags. Someone had put them in the washing machine last night. He put them in the dryer first thing this morning. He folds them. Now they’re ready. The kitchen uses 2 crates full of clean rags per day to wash tables and keep the counters clean.
“It’s a new adventure every day. New people, new volunteers — new every day. It keeps you on your toes. It’s frustrating, exhilarating, everything. We meet and work with people who are passionate about cooking and didn’t know it,” says Paul, when asked what it’s like working in the TASK kitchen.
Ron’s work boots are sturdy leather, black, nonslip. Thursday is the longest day for him. He feels OK till he stops and lies down at home, then he “feels it,” he says. He still makes time to work out at the gym.
Working in the kitchen is a workout. It’s not for the wimpy. Those sheet pans loaded with pork chops, for example, are heavy. Maybe 30 pounds. The cooks hoist many every day, from the fridge to the cart to the counter to the oven to the warming ovens to the warming bays in the serving area.
The kitchen floor is an expanse of 6”-square terra cotta ceramic tiles – they shine when wet – with dark grout between. It’s often wet and gets swept and mopped frequently. TASK cooks are on their feet all day, so they get some relief when they stand on the heavy, black perforated rubber mats lined up on the floor by their stations.
Still only Paul, Lisa H., Ron and Bruce in the kitchen.
The aroma of ground beef and onions cooking starts to fill the air.
Ron removes from the oven and drains a steaming shallow sheet pan of pork chops very carefully – the pork chops rendered their juices.
Bruce unloads the dishwasher again.
Garbage truck outside whines, empties the Dumpster.
Ron takes 3 heavy metal pans of rice from the oven – a large ball of steams rolls out and up toward the ceiling when he opens the door — puts them on the counter, choosing just the right tool, fluffs them up with care, then covers them with plastic wrap and slides them into the warmer, near the service window. They are ready to serve.
Bruce puts fresh bags in the 32-gallon round trash bins. There are 8 of them scattered in strategic locations throughout the kitchen.
Paul is in his tiny closet office working on the computer.
Adult education student and volunteer Phyllis arrives and helps Mike start prepping the service area for adult education students’ breakfast: tea, coffee, oatmeal, lunch bags (peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cookies, juice) for students to eat before their classes begin at 9 a.m.
Ron moves rice and beans into the warming oven.
There is laughter beyond the kitchen — people calling to each other: Good morning!
The aroma of ground beef and onions has made its way to the dining room.
I can hear the exhaust fans humming.
First of 3 times today – the metal shutter of the meal service area gets rolled up – Phyllis is behind the counter, ready to wait on her fellow students.
Sometimes they will serve breakfast: eggs or pancakes and maybe sausage for the students, before class starts at 9 a.m.
On Wednesday and Thursday, Whole Foods donates fresh food. Pennington Market donates bakery items and produce every day. Jermaine picks up the donations in the TASK van. By now, he has made his rounds to pick up morning donations (he dropped by Whole Foods and Pennington Market much earlier) and he has dropped off 5 huge bags of bread and many boxes of fruit, veggies and canned items for Terence to sort through and stash in all the right places.
Last Tuesday, Paul tells me, Sam’s Club donated 4 skids of meats. Pork chops. Ground meat. Cuts of beef.
I hear the ice maker dumping out its next batch of ice, the comforting sound of cubes crashing into the holding bin below.
Terence picks out and discards donated food that is past its prime and puts away the food we’ll keep, use or give away. The kitchen crew comes by to “shop” the pile: Maybe they can use some items right away in the day’s meal.
David comes in and takes his place at the back of the kitchen, near the ovens. He gets right to work.
The place is waking up.
Terence weighs and counts everything that comes in through the receiving doors, even cans of cat food, which he’ll take next door to the animal shelter. Last fiscal year, generous individuals, businesses and church groups made 63,911 dinner bags and donated 48.87 tons of meat, produce and nonperishables!
He knows when there is not enough of something to make a meal for the crowd and puts it in a cart to be given out at mealtime to the patrons.
Ron is loading sheet pans of meat into the ovens for the dinner meal.
Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” is playing on the radio. Cheerful energy.
David prepares mostly the satellite food. He also preps for the cooks who make the lunch and dinner meals at TASK and fills in when someone is out. He takes pasta cooked from the day before and adds veggies and herbs and spices to it and stirs it up. He knows that, if it’s going to the site in Hamilton, he will pack it in deep bins, not in individual trays, as they do with the other sites.
The kitchen starts fresh Monday to cook for satellites. Their plan depends on how many trays they need to make. It’s different for different days and what the pantry has to offer and what will work for that day’s meal. They start to cook and prep what they can for the rest of the week.
Friday can be leftover day.
Adult Education Program students arrive, get tea, sandwiches or oatmeal to eat before class.
Terence puts boxes of food on the front table of the dining room so patrons can choose what they want to take home. Today, it’s muffins and scones. There’s not enough to feed hundreds of people at mealtime.
Every staffer in the kitchen moves fast. Smoothly, with assurance and purpose. They never get in each other’s way. There is quiet banter from time to time.
Lisa makes turkey salad for staff. It’s fresh turkey that’s been cooked and pulled from the bone by a volunteer yesterday.
People walk from the back room to the kitchen carrying boxes on their shoulders full of food. People walk from the kitchen to the back room with the empties. They are on their feet all day.
Before working with the food, everybody washes his/her hands and pulls on hair nets, plastic aprons and vinyl gloves.
The pile of food donations has been put away – apples, kale, sour cream (will make beef stroganoff with that next week), red and green peppers, mushrooms, zucchini, cartons of milk, large white onions, lots of bags and boxes of baked goods.
David is still working on food for satellites. He flashes me his trademark shy smile. At 10:30, his meals must be ready for Lisa H. and a volunteer to pack the trays.
Two young JusticeWorx volunteers arrive and start cutting up donated desserts into serving sizes for the afternoon meal. They fill sheet pans, four pieces across and five down. 16 sheet pans to a rolling rack. Maybe 1½ racks for a meal. The cakes and pies yield easily to a knife that looks like it means business.
Terence is in the back room changing the mop head to a fresh one. He will mop his receiving area.
The serving area in the dining room is now closed. Phyllis rolled the metal shutter down. The students, Phyllis among them, settle down to study with their tutors. A 10-gallon juice jug has been set on the counter of the serving area for the upcoming meal. Bruce will replace it with another one, now resting beneath the counter, at least once during mealtime.
Paul has emptied all the rolls of ground beef into the tilt skillet. He stirs it with a 4-foot long metal paddle, putting all his weight behind it. He turns a handle to tilt the skillet so the fat drains out. He adds the sauce. He gives me a taste – it was so good, it went POW in my mouth. So good I could have cried.
Hakim, his hair covered in a yellow bandanna, tilts the Sloppy Joe mixture, which plops out into large metal bins, covers them with plastic and places them in the warmers. They are ready for the upcoming meal.
Lisa H. has been cutting pieces of foil, keeping count, to wrap satellite trays. Today, she will need two stacks of 75 this morning and stacks of 90, 75 and 200 this afternoon.
Each cook has his/her own work station. Lisa at the salad station, David behind her, near the ovens, Ron to his left, near the stoves and tilt skillets.
Still the sound of rhythmic ripping of foil.
A faucet is running water somewhere.
Metal scraping on metal. Hakim is scraping the tilt skillet with a spatula before he scrubs it. Next, he wields a long-handled brush, dips it in hot, soapy water, sloshes it generously into the skillet and scrubs and scrubs inside and out and all around. Gives it a rinse. The soapy water runs to the floor. Then he squeegees the soapy water toward the floor drain. The tilt skillet is ready for Ron to cook his next meal, which will happen very soon.
No talking. Everyone is busy, absorbed in his/her own work. Bruce is clanking pans in the sink – the first crop of dirty pans is ready for him to clean. He gets right on it and keeps ahead of it all.
Carts rumble over the tiled floor as crew transports heavy, loaded bins of food around the kitchen.
Bright side lights of the ovens behind David are glowing blue through glass doors onto the cooks’ faces.
The pace is never frenetic, always measured, efficient.
Everything has its place. Spices are corralled on carts next to work stations. Pots, pans, humongous whisks hang from gigantic ceiling racks. A bank of bright fluorescent lights in the ceiling illuminates surfaces, ceiling fans are turning.
People constantly walk back and forth, but traffic is very smooth.
Clouds of steam rise whenever an oven door is opened.
Carts of tubs of colorful oranges and salad wait nearby to be used at the serving line.
There’s a rhythm. Everybody knows what to do and does it. Efficient movement, they work as one.
A mountain of sheet pans (some of them perforated) lie at the ready and at hand, upside-down underneath the work counters and another never-ending stream of sheet pans is ready to be washed. These sheet pans are used for everything – and slid onto racks – for cooking and serving — from meats to desserts.
13 volunteers arrive – rising college seniors dressed in identical light-blue T-shirts, single file. They come from The College of New Jersey Urban Teaching Academy. Part of their training is to “know your community,” not just your subject, says Marianne Titus, their leader and teacher.
Just as Terence finishes mopping the back room and pantry, Girl Scout Troop 70072 Central Jersey comes through the back door for a visit. There are four Scouts accompanied by three moms/leaders.
He amazes them: We serve 4000 – 6000 meal
s a week at the soup kitchen. He explains about the 14 satellite locations in and around Trenton we also serve, the Adult Education Program, arts program, hygiene giveaways, the upcoming building expansion. Patrons who eat at TASK come from all walks of life, he tells them, and we take care of the children, especially at breakfast. He reminds them to stay humble, because “you never know.”
Terence leads the Girl Scouts through the kitchen on their tour. He points out that volunteers are important to TASK. Some volunteers come in big groups, such as Bank of America employees and Thunder baseball players. Some volunteer individually. TASK has a waiting list of volunteers. We are organized while we have fun.
TCNJ volunteers get suited up. Evie explains where to find gloves and aprons and asks them to change gloves if they’ve handled their cell phones while wearing them.
I meet Louis, bearded and kind-eyed, who volunteers quite often. He says he is retired and would go “bonkers” if he stayed home. He especially likes to serve the juice on the service line. How did he get the idea to volunteer at TASK? He brainstormed with friends about what he could do. Someone suggested: What about the soup kitchen? Great idea. He’ll feed the needy. So, he comes most every day to help. He thinks the atmosphere in the kitchen is friendly. Everyone is busy — every day there’s something different to do. And people in the kitchen know just what to do. They work seamlessly together.
Mike already knows it will be a full dining room – he sets up the extra folding table. Adult Ed tutors are wrapping up their sessions and going home. Friendly chatter, giggling. Some students are staying for lunch.
Volunteers are suited up and lined up ready to carry trays to tables. Someone raises the serving line area shutter with a crank, revealing volunteers standing at their stations, gloved and aproned and hair-netted and ready to fill the trays.
10:30 a.m. sharp
Dianne opens the front door and patrons stream in. Families with children head to tables on the left, in front. They are served first. Adults start on the right, all ages. Some line up near the bread giveaway bins. Floor Manager Iris welcomes everyone and, microphone in hand, makes announcements in English and Spanish.
Lisa H. is packing satellite trays for the Rescue Mission: pasta salad, slices of ham, bread — assembly-line fashion with volunteer Darryl.
David stirs meatballs in sauce to go with pasta for evening satellite meal trays. He wheels a cart of cooked rice from the fridge.
Ron stands at the window between the kitchen and the serving area – he’ll wait to refill pans of food as servers empty them. In the next 180 minutes, they will serve at least 7 pans of rice, 12 pans of Sloppy Joe sauce, 5 or 6 pans of salad, and at least 20 sheet pans of dessert servings, 400 pieces of fruit and 400 pieces of bread.
Volunteers lift heavy stacks of orange plastic serving trays over and over – it’s hard work. On each serving tray, they place a bundle of flatware, then a roll and a dessert, then a piece of fruit. They push the trays along the serving line, completing the meal at the end of the line with a recyclable meal tray loaded with salad, vegetable, starch and protein.
Terence flies through the kitchen on a mission proclaiming, “Soup Kitchen, Baby!” in his hearty trademark voice.
David cleans off counters, getting ready to prep the next meal on his list.
I talked with Paul. He now can buy fresh veggies from local farmers. TASK doesn’t have to buy bread or cakes or cookies – all that is donated. Much of the meat donated is from Sam’s Club, like today’s pork chops and ground beef. The rice and beans of today’s meal are also donated. He plans at least a week ahead. He sees what is in the pantry, the fridge and the freezer. When something comes in as a donation, he incorporates it into the menu. For example, with the five one-quart containers of sour cream that came in this morning, he’ll make beef stroganoff for next Thursday. Iris and Latifah, floor managers today, consult with him because a patron says he has a pass for something different to eat. He goes out to talk with the patron.
When asked, Paul says he is not concerned about running out of food: “Donations come in when we get low, sometimes donations just appear at the right time.” He prepares the food to feed the people as soon as possible. When the amount isn’t right to make a meal for many people, he gives the products away to patrons out of a cart at the side door.
Bruce hauls out 2 more large bags filled with trash, then he comes by again and brings out 2 more.
A young man who is fulfilling his community service obligation is scrubbing the large blue metal doors that lead to the pantry.
More steam rises, I hear the rip and rustle of aluminum foil Lisa H. is tearing, one every 3 seconds, making a stack to wrap more meal trays for lunch delivery to patrons of the Rescue Mission.
David starts loading the meals to Hamilton into insulated containers – Hamilton serves out of the large containers – no need to pack into individual serving trays
Six volunteers from The ARC Mercer come in through the back door out of the July heat and make their way to the table in the pantry, as they do every Thursday. Terence calls out a jovial greeting: “My favorite group!” They will be busy for the next few hours packaging snacks and treats for satellite patrons: today, 4 double-stuffed Oreos into a baggie secured with a green twisty tie.
A volunteer strolls by with a huge scoop. I wonder what he’ll be using that for.
Hakim squeegees soapy water to the floor drain after cleaning the tilt skillet thoroughly for the second time today. (Corn on the cob.)
Volunteer Darryl brings in an unwieldy empty insulated food carrier. It’s about the size and shape of a small refrigerator. He fills it with the meal trays he has just wrapped with Lisa H. and transports it on a plastic cart to the back door for pickup. People from the Rescue Mission are there waiting to take it back with them in their truck. It’s lunch. It’s very heavy – their van sinks several inches when the carrier is loaded in. 75 lunch meals go to the Rescue Mission and enough food for lunch for 75 people goes to Medallion Health Care in Hamilton every weekday before noon.
Mike E., sweaty from working at the Capital City Farm next door, comes in for cold water and a bagged lunch.
Ron prepares pork in barbecue sauce for tonight’s meal while he fields requests for fill-ups from the serving line. He goes to the warming ovens and quickly brings them what they need so there is no interruption in service and hungry patrons do not have to wait long for their meal.
Volunteers are wrapping meals to go near the side door, staff at patron services are giving out socks and mail.
Time to start cleaning counters and equipment and help servers get the food they need. Service ends at 1. Someone has assembled staff lunch on a cart. Staff eats lunch after the dining room closes. Someone has prepared a stack of late trays to be handed out the side door till 2 p.m. for people who missed lunch.
Serving line closes. Kitchen staff finishes cleaning the area.
Give out late trays at the side door during staff lunch. Lisa H. made delicious turkey salad from scratch. There are rolls, salad, a bowl of fresh cherries. Also a tray of pre-made sandwiches of roast beef and tuna salad donated that day.
Lisa H. is back to work making trays for afternoon satellite delivery. She and volunteer Darryl fill 4 carriers: 90 meals will go the South Trenton satellite soup kitchen, 75 to the West Trenton soup kitchen, and 200 to the Hamilton soup kitchen
Jan, a past Board member and our 2014 recipient of the Geltzer Family Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award for distinguished service to TASK, volunteers in the pantry to keep it organized. It’s a moving target — donations come in and soon will be given to the hungry patrons. She also makes sure there are boxes of snacks packed and ready for the satellite sites for the next week. Bruce finds time during the day to move the appropriate boxes to the staging area for Jermaine to pick up and deliver along with the hot meals.
While Jermaine is on vacation, Paul delivers meal carriers to the Hightstown satellite – 200 meals. Terence will deliver to the other 2 satellites later.
Now, young JusticeWorx volunteers sit in the back pantry and package cookies into baggies – 4 per.
It’s quieter in the kitchen than in the morning. A donation comes in through the back door — 4 industrial-size tubs of ice cream, among them cookies ‘n’ cream. Jan sees them and calls 2 strong volunteers to swiftly take them out of the searing heat and onto a safe berth in the walk-in freezer.
All’s quiet in the kitchen. Cooking is done. We’re getting ready to open the service area for the 3:30 meal. Floor Manager Ammer arrives, dons her orange apron, puts the meal-count clicker on her finger and selects the smooth jazz she’ll play over the PA system.
Terence is off in the TASK van to deliver evening meals to Divine Mercy and Trinity Cathedral satellite locations in Trenton.
Volunteer servers for the afternoon meal are aproned and gloved. Evie has given them a short orientation session. Ammer directs volunteer tray servers to tables as patrons come in and are seated at the next available table.
In the kitchen, a lone volunteer is applying spice rub to rack of ribs for tomorrow’s meal. The noise and activity have died down.
Time to sweep the kitchen floors and clean the counters.
Ron mops the floors – they shine wet.
Meal service is over for the day. Patrons leave the building. People who arrived late can pick up a late tray at the side door till 5:30.
The serving area is clean and ready for the next day. The cooks have gone home.
Dante turns out the lights and closes the door to a serene kitchen – spotless stainless steel counters harboring mountains of clean sheet pans beneath them glow in the ambient light intruding from the dining room window in the doorway. The scene belies the extraordinary magical feat of teamwork and dedication that happened here today — and will happen again tomorrow at TASK.