Ralph Gardner Jr: Columbia County's Family Meal | WAMC

Ralph Gardner Jr: Columbia County's Family Meal

May 9, 2020

One of the most compelling but I suspect overlooked reasons that people enter the cooking profession and the restaurant world is because they’re drawn to doing things for other people; to give their guests an experience that might bring a little joy to their lives.

Obviously, those opportunities have diminished just when we need them most, with people shuttered at home. But they haven’t vanished completely. At least for two of Hudson, NY’s top chefs – Jaime Parry of Swoon and Jon Carr of Le Perche.

Rather than sit home and mope or watch Netflix with their restaurants closed indefinitely, they put their aprons back on. I’m not sure they actually wear aprons but you get the idea. They’re devoting their skills, spices and freshly sharpened knives to Columbia County residents suffering from food insecurity. Called the Columbia County Recovery Kitchen, they’re currently making about 800 meals a week using the kitchen in the parish house at the beautiful Gothic Revival Christ Church Episcopal in Hudson.

The enterprise was the brainchild of Carole Clark. She’s the former owner of The Charleston, one of Hudson’s earliest fine dining restaurants. Carole had no kitchen or liability insurance but she found a sponsor in the Columbia County Democratic Committee.

The Recovery Kitchen doesn’t receive donations from supermarkets and regional food banks like established food kitchens do. Rather, they’re dependent on private contributions as well as A GoFundMe campaign that has raised over $13,000 towards its $20,000 goal. The effort also received a $15,000 boost from the Berkshire-Taconic Foundation.

The Recovery Kitchen has constituted something of a learning curve for the chefs. It’s a short walk but a long way from Swoon and Le Perche and some of the other fancy restaurants where Parry and Carr have worked over the years. Carr is the former executive chef at Sfoglia, a celebrated Italian restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. And Parry trained at the 3-star Montrachet in Tribeca.

The duo have none of the sous chefs, prep cooks or dishwashers they had at their disposal in their former life. “We set off the fire alarm three times in the first ten minutes,” Jaime said.

There’s also the issue of social distancing. Having only two people cooking in the church’s large commercial kitchen helps them maintain a six-foot space. But their muscle memory is the close-quarters tumult of a bustling restaurant kitchen. So they’re following the advice of Hong Kong’s Black Sheep restaurants that have created a kitchen playbook for navigating Covid-19 safely.

It’s a safe bet that the Columbia County residents benefiting from their talents are enjoying some of the tastiest food around. The families have been identified by county social services, public school social workers and the Columbia County Sanctuary Movement. The chefs are sourcing much of their food from local farms. Jon Parr compared the work to family meal, when a restaurant’s workers gather for a communal meal before evening service starts. Only several orders of magnitude larger.

Their upcoming dishes include things like meat loaf and mashed potatoes “with a vegetable to be determined,” Jaime said. But also dishes that pack some surprises. Such as tagine, an Arabic dish, and ramp pesto. “I have to resist my urge to make everything spicy,” Jon said.

They’re especially looking forward to the spring and summer growing season when they’re planning to provision using seconds from local farms – fruits and vegetables that might be bruised or blemished but are just as tasty and nutritious.

But cooking constitutes only one aspect of the challenge. Food insecure families need to be identified and the meals delivered. Pam Kline, the founder of Traditions, the luxury linens company in Claverack, NY, is in charge of coordinating transportation; she said that dozens of local residents have volunteered to deliver the meals.

The operation is organized by town so that those most familiar with their own town’s roads and families do the drop-offs. “Every day we get calls from people who have identified people in need,” Carole Clark said.

And Pam added, “Our target are rural families that have slipped through the cracks. The deliverers had no idea the poverty level in Columbia County. This is a real eye opener.”

One of the rewards of being a successful chef is the recognition -- straying into the dining area to accept the approbation of guests or having the occasional VIP visit the kitchen. That’s obviously out of the question these days. But the chefs do receive thanks through those delivering the meals. “I get a lot of feedback from the drivers,” Pam Kline said. “People are very appreciative.”

For Jaime and Jon the work reminds them of starting out in the business – cooking as often for friends as for customers or to get celebratory reviews that would generate buzz.

“This is some of the most satisfying cooking,” Jaime told me. “This has brought joy to my soul and I’m a pretty joyful cook to begin with.”

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.