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Look Who’s Cooking: Stone Soup Café chef Kirsten Levitt excels at feeding a crowd

  • Kirsten Levitt, executive chef and executive director of Stone Soup Café, holds a box of broccoli donated for a meal by Foster’s Supermarket. For the Recorder/Richard Wedegartner

  • The Stone Soup Café recently served a Memorial Day-themed meal with all-beef hot dog and New York style onions, as well as various salads. For the Recorder/Richard Wedegartner

  • Diners enjoy a Memorial Day-themed meal at the Stone Soup Café. For the Recorder/Richard Wedegartner

  • WEDEGARTNER



Tuesday, June 26, 2018

There’s a hidden gem of an eatery in Greenfield. It’s Stone Soup Café at the corner of Main and Hope streets in the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church basement.

The problem is you can only eat there once a week, and that’s on Saturdays from noon to 1:30 p.m. All are welcome to come to this pay-what-you-can community lunch. Your “donation” or payment for the meal is completely anonymous.

Kirsten Levitt, a second grade teacher at Sheffield Elementary School in Turners Falls, and also the executive chef and executive director of the café, stresses emphatically that Stone Soup Café is not a soup kitchen.

“It’s a community café akin to a restaurant where people from all backgrounds and incomes can eat together, and they will always get a high quality, scratch-made meal that is served with love and dignity,” she explained.

The mission of the all-volunteer organization is to provide a safe, relaxed place for people to gather and be fed the freshest food available, while getting to know the other diners at their table.

There are several types of volunteer teams. Some volunteers create a nicely decorated, white-dining-cloth atmosphere, sometimes to coincide with the meal’s theme. Others begin preparing the meal on Friday evening and finish in the early Saturday morning hours. Additional volunteers make up the two buffet-style serving shifts of five to six per shift. So, if you’re inclined to volunteer, there’s always something to do, Levitt said.

The menu always has several choices, including vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free, and includes a salad, dessert and beverage. The weekend my husband and I went, the café had a Memorial Day theme, and the beginning of their summer food offerings. Among the items on the menu were fish chowder, all-beef hot dogs with New York Style onions and sauerkraut from Real Pickles, rubbed kale salad, Waldorf salad, a veggie pasta salad, a quinoa black bean burger and peach crisp for dessert.

When you go, my advice is to go early to get your seat at a table. It was packed to near “sell out” when we went.

Roxann: When did you begin cooking?

Kirsten: I was born and raised in New York City to a father who was a professional actor and a mother who was a professional opera star and stay-at-home mother. They both loved to cook and they had parties all the time. So my earliest memory is probably around 2 years old, when I’d be in the kitchen with my mother as she prepared party food or something for one of our meals. I was always given something to do.

My father was often in the kitchen cooking or experimenting with some type of food or a menu. Then as I got a little bit older, on Sunday nights, my mother would take me to the Sivananda Ashram and Yoga Center. While she was doing her lessons, I’d wander to the kitchen and help out. That’s where I really learned my way around a kitchen and where I saw what it meant to cook for a very large number of people. I was using kitchen knives before I was 8 years old.

R: When you cook, do you have a cooking muse?

K: My father was always into recreating tastes that he’d experienced, say at a restaurant, and he was a very experimental cook. I think I learned my fearlessness around cooking and menu planning from him. I hear of something interesting to cook and I just go do it. For instance, when I heard about rubbed kale salad, I knew I wanted to learn more and so I did. It was a “Wow” moment. For Stone Soup Café, we have a tradition of using our meals to celebrate something, could be a holiday, could be the birth of a volunteer’s child. I take my cues from the week’s celebration.

R: I’m guessing you didn’t just come straight from New York City to here to cook for the masses in the Stone Soup Café. Am I right?

K: Right. I grew up and went to college to become an accountant. Then I dropped out of college for awhile. Eventually, I got a job with a midwestern chain department store, doing accounts payable and accounting. I was a single mom then and my son liked going to the youth group at the Unitarian Church where we were in Ohio. That’s where I discovered the Unitarian Church. I was raised in the Jewish faith.

The church wanted parent volunteers and they found out I could cook, so they asked me to cook for the youth group camp. There I was again, cooking for a lot of people. I wanted to go back to college to become a teacher. When I graduated, my family threw me a party at a relative’s house in Shelburne Falls. When I went there, I knew I’d found my home here in Franklin County. I came here in the ’90s, became involved here at All Souls Unitarian church and they found out I could cook. Sound familiar? So I would cook in this kitchen whenever there was a church event.

R: Stone Soup Café hasn’t been around since the ’90s, has it?

K: No. The café as we know it now was founded in 2012 by a man named Ariel Pliskin, when he took it over from a group who operated a soup kitchen here that was sometimes inconsistent in its operation. I was already here volunteering in the kitchen when Ariel asked me to take on cooking for the Stone Soup meal.

We wanted to establish more consistency and to operate on a set of principles and food philosophy that would provide a new model for feeding the hungry. Those principles were: one, every ingredient was to be as fresh and as local as possible with us using very little in the way of canned food and that it be made from scratch; two, it was not going to be a soup kitchen, but rather a community meal with restaurant quality food and preparation for which diners had to pay what they could at the door; three, it would be a place of celebration where people from all backgrounds could gather and be treated as equal and valuable members of a diverse inclusive community.

R: What are the challenges for making a once-a-week meal for a large number of people?

K: As you might imagine, we’re not really a profitable business at the moment. You’ll get a meal here that would cost you $15 to $20 in a restaurant. But we usually end up, after expenses, with 50 cents to, in a good week, maybe a dollar per meal. Our cost generally is about $11 per meal.

We rely heavily on food donations from local farmers and grocery stores like Clarkdale Fruit Farms and Foster’s Supermarket and other food sellers. I don’t always know what I’m getting in order to plan the meal, although we do purchase some items. So I have to really use my imagination sometimes to come up with the full menu. It’s fun, though. As for cooking for a crowd, that’s not really a challenge. In fact, the challenge is cooking at home for just two people: my husband and I.

R: What recipes do you have for us today?

K: Have you ever had a hot dog with New York style onions? In New York, a good hot dog doesn’t come with raw onion, it comes with New York style onions. I thought I’d give you my riff on that one. They’re a childhood favorite of mine. And then, I know we have a lot of vegetarian and vegan fans, so I’m doing the rubbed kale salad. It’s very versatile. I call it kitchen sink salad because you can add what you want to it or change up its flavor profile.

New York style onions

Ingredients:

2 T vegetable oil

2 onions, sliced into thin half rounds/strips

4 cloves garlic, minced

¼ cup ketchup

3 T white vinegar

¼ tsp. of chili powder

1 to 3 dashes of Tabasco or Sriracha sauce

Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions:

Heat vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Cook and stir onions and garlic until onions are slightly browned and soft (8 to 12 minutes).

Mix in ketchup, chili powder, hot pepper sauce and vinegar until thoroughly combined. Taste the mixture and add salt and pepper to taste.

Bring mixture to a boil, and simmer uncovered until onions are tender (about 10 more minutes).

Rubbed kale salad

Ingredients:

10 to 12 large kale leaves, torn into bite-sized pieces

1 cup shredded carrots

1 cup cabbage, finely shredded

2 or 3 pinches of Kosher salt

1 to 2 lemons, juiced

2 cloves garlic, finely minced

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

2 T roasted sesame oil

1 T hot chili sesame oil

2 T of gluten free tamari

2 T Mirin

2 T raw apple cider vinegar

Pinch of white pepper

¼ cup roasted sunflower seeds

¼ cup raisins

Instructions:

Place the bite-sized pieces of kale leaves on a large baking sheet, dust with salt and drizzle with lemon juice. Let sit for about five minutes. Then, rub and squeeze the mixture with your hands until the kale begins to wilt (about 2 minutes).

Add the garlic, carrot and cabbage, and mix gently with your hands to combine.

Pour the olive oil, sesame oils, tamari, remaining lemon juice, cider vinegar and mirin into a small bowl and whisk together. Pour over the kale mixture and mix to combine.

Taste and add more Kosher salt and pepper to your liking.

Eat immediately or refrigerate and serve within a few days. Yields six to eight servings.

In the “Look Who’s Cooking!” monthly column, Roxann interviews and shares the recipes of people from around Franklin County who may be well-known in their professional or political lives, but not necessarily for their lives as passionate cooks, bakers or all-around foodies. Send ideas for Look Who’s Cooking to:
roxanndw6@yahoo.com.