I had been at college for about a week when I saw a flyer for the Community Lunch Soup Kitchen. Growing up, I had always enjoyed baking for family and friends, but my knowledge didn’t go far beyond peanut butter cookies and egg fried rice. Nevertheless, I decided I would give the soup kitchen a try. So, the next day, I found myself in the basement of a church standing silently with a handful of other awkward freshmen. Each of us nervously glanced around the room, hoping one of the others would confirm that we were in the right place.
Then, the silence was abruptly broken. A tall, handsome, apron-adorned man stepped out from the back room. Raising his hands to his face, he called out, “Hey! Who here can cook?” The group nervously fidgeted with their hair nets and oversized gloves, no one willing to make eye contact. Seeing no one else step forward, I hesitantly raised my hand. His face broke out into a wonderful grin. “Great! Come with me.”
As I followed him into a walk-in freezer, he began handing me different ingredients to carry and introduce himself.
“I’m Carlos, I’m a senior.”
“Andy, I’m just excited to be here.”
“Cool, cool. Our regular head chef is studying abroad so we need someone like you. We’re making baked ziti, steamed broccoli, bean soup, and brownies for about 100 people. Think you can help me figure it out?”
That first day was brutal. Three hours of prepping vegetables, stirring sauces, and sweating away over an industrial 8-burner stove was immediately followed by another two hours of washing dishes, bleaching countertops, and stacking chairs. By the time I got back to my dorm room, I collapsed onto my bed and passed out. I loved it.
The next week, I was so eager to work I showed up an hour early. Admittedly, the week after, I was only thirty minutes early but just as excited. Even as weeks became months, then semesters, then years, I still found myself always coming in just a little bit early. I grew to love that time before the day really started: the quiet crackle of a cheap radio from the 80’s, the uncontrollable stream of wake-up yawns, and the gentle smell of roux wafting through the air. It was a moment of calm before the storm.
By the time I reached senior year, the kitchen around me had changed drastically. Menus had evolved, staffers and volunteers had come and gone, even the kitchen itself went through multiple renovations. But the feeling of the morning always remained. I suppose that’s why the smell of roux will always remind me of my home away from home.