Executive Chef Wolfgang Geckeler has created gourmet meals for casino restaurants in Atlantic City.
Last week he stood in the cafeteria of Atlantic City High School with a group of students, planning the first week of meals for a much needier group, families living in nearby motels.
Geckeler is a founding member of Chefs with a Mission, a group of area chefs and others who want to help bring healthy meals to low-income residents. Formed about eight months ago, the group is currently working with staff and clients at Career Opportunity Develop-ment Inc. in Egg Harbor City, a non-profit that helps adults with developmental disabilities. They have also begun cooking with the Campus Kitchen project at Atlantic City High School.
Now in its fourth year, Campus Kitchen cooks meals that are delivered to needy families. The local group is a partnership of Richard Stockton College, which manages the program, the Atlantic City School District and its food service provider, Sodexo, which provides the kitchen space and tools, the Boys and Girls Club of Atlantic City, which delivers the meals, the Community Food Bank, Southern Division, which provides the food at a discounted rate, and the Chefs with a Mission and Professional Chefs Association of South Jersey, who are providing the culinary expertise.
The chefs got involved after scheduling made it difficult for staff from the Academy of Culinary Arts at Atlantic Cape Community College to make the weekly cooking sessions. Reva Curry, executive director of community partnerships at Stockton, said ACA students and staff still come in as volunteers.
Ron Kollman, of Egg Harbor Township, a co-founder of Chefs with a Mission, said they want to work with other non-profit groups to teach about healthy cooking and nutrition.
"We don't just want to cook for people," he said. "We want to help people and teach them how to cook better for themselves, and how to use what they have to make a healthy meal."
The first planned meal is chicken parmesan, sauteed yellow squash and mushrooms with rice and garlic bread.
Bob Harre, of Seaville, a co-founder of Chefs with a Mission, demonstrated to ACHS students how to safely cut the squash into small chunks.
Student Abigail Vargas, 17, volunteered last year, and came back again this year because she likes to cook, and likes to help people.
"I like to cut things up," she said.
Student leader Chelsea Moore, 17, has participated every year because it's fun and it helps people.
"We are helping people in the community we know don't get hot meals," she said.
High school teacher Dawn Bonnell and new assistant Linda Impagliazzo oversee the students, who really don't need a lot of supervision any more.
"Usually we get a core group that returns, then some new ones each year," Bonnell said. "They really showed up today ready to cook."
When the high school students left to catch the late bus home, a small group of Stockton students took over chopping squash so it could be cooked and be ready to be packed the next day.
Jessica Ryan, of Freehold, is the Stockton student leader this year, tracking all the paperwork required for the national Campus Kitchen program. She is participating as a member of Circle K International, a division of Kiwanis. She had volunteered last year because she liked the idea of feeding people.
"When you cook it yourself, you know what you are giving them," she said.
Curry said the local project has served more than 12,000 meals since it began in 2010. Volunteers typically deliver to local motels, providing a meal to each member of a family. The school district also helps identify families that might need the meals, but the main focus is motels because they know families staying in such housing are less likely to get hot meals. Few motels have cooking facilities, but most do have a microwave to reheat the Campus Kitchen meals.
The group typically makes between 100 and 130 meals per week, cooking on Monday and packing and delivering on Tuesday. They try to do a turkey dinner at the holidays, and also works with partners to raise funds to buy the food. Curry said BJ's recently gave the group $1,000 and the Asbury United Methodist Church in Egg Harbor Township also helps support the project. But, she said, they can always use donations, especially to help pay for meat and other proteins to make healthy meals.
The mission of Chefs with a Mission is "helping others who help the poor," but Kollman said they also want people to enjoy the food. He said it can be a challenge to develop healthy recipes that people from many different cultures will like, but spices and rice can help give a dish a universally familiar taste.
"The big challenge is to make food that people will enjoy," he said. "People want food that tastes good, but that can't just mean being fried or full of fat. We want to cook responsibly."
Contact Diane D'Amico:
For more information
To learn about Chefs with a Mission, visit ChefsWithaMission.org
For information about donating to the Campus Kitchen project, contact Reva Curry
at 609-652-4535 or email Reva.Curry@Stockton.edu.