Iron Chef

By the time Caritas' Velda Melendez finally realized that cooking could mean a career, she realized it also meant 450 lunches five days a week – and not just during the holidays

Iron Chef
Photo By John Anderson

The next time you find yourself standing glassy-eyed in front of the refrigerator, wondering how you can possibly put a meal together from its meager or disparate contents, give a thought to Velda Melendez. As chef at the Caritas Community Kitchen, Melendez prepares a hot lunch five days a week for 450 people, without ever knowing exactly what she'll have to work with – it all depends on what's been donated to the kitchen that day. Think about it: That amounts to more than 90,000 meals a year.

The Caritas Community Kitchen, along with its adjacent Food Pantry, is a fundamental component of Caritas of Austin, one of Travis County's largest nongovernmental sources of community assistance. Located downtown in the former 7-Up bottling plant (just a stone's throw from the convention center and the glitzy new Hilton), Caritas' mission is to alleviate homelessness and hunger and provide support to those in need.

In addition to its core program of immediate emergency assistance, Caritas maintains longer-term programs that promote self-sufficiency via job- and life-skills training. Since 1975, the nonprofit organization has also run a comprehensive refugee resettlement enterprise, serving more than 8,000 documented refugees who've landed in Austin from such origins as Vietnam, Cuba, and Afghanistan.

In Latin, caritas means love or charity, with an ironically significant second definition that refers to high price, especially cost of living. The organization was founded in 1964 as a strictly volunteer, church-based mission on a shoestring budget. Since then, in response to the ever-increasing need, Caritas has grown into a major social services agency with a budget of $4.3 million, a staff of 44 speaking 21 languages, and significant support from corporations, foundations, and community organizations. It provides basic-needs services for a mind-boggling 15,000 people annually.

During the holiday season that begins with Thanksgiving, most of us remember that an integral part of giving thanks and overindulging includes sharing the bounty and helping our fellows. While this annual urge toward charity is admirable, it behooves us to remember also that the need is not just seasonal, but exists all year round.

Caritas does not perform special services during the holidays, simply because it provides basic-needs services all year long, week in and week out, and has done so for the past 40 years. And what is more basic than the human need for nourishment?

After years of serving sandwiches on a downtown street corner, Caritas began to make hot lunches and distribute groceries in 1991. When the organization acquired its own building in 1999, it was able to outfit a small commercial kitchen to prepare the daily fare, as well as a dining room where anyone who wants to – no questions asked – can sit down and eat a hot lunch.

The Path to Caritas

Chef Velda Melendez, diminutive and with penetrating brown eyes, presides over the Caritas Community Kitchen, one of the largest in the region. From showing a new volunteer how to properly chop the big buckets of onions, to implementing professional standards for safety and hygiene, to dreaming up menus based on the day's donations, she runs her operation with quiet authority and more than a dollop of culinary creativity.

Melendez, who was raised in Chicago, says she was always more interested in cooking than anything else, although it took her until midlife to realize that cooking could be a professional career for her.

She comes from a family of good cooks and learned much from her mother, an aunt, and an older cousin who was a cook for the Chicago school system. "On Sundays after church, we always had big family dinners at my aunt's," Melendez recalls. "She made perfect yeast rolls, and my cousin baked wonderful seven-layer cakes. I was a shy kid who didn't ask a lot of questions, but I hung around, watching and learning, and I was always ready to try new things in the kitchen.

"By the time I was about 12, I was known for my shrimp salad. Once my brother brought home some lamb, and my mother didn't know how it cook it. So I tackled it, and it turned out quite well. I was hooked on cooking from the beginning – I just didn't know it could be a career."

As an adult, Melendez did clerical work in federal government offices and hospitals. A longtime U.S. military spouse, she lived in a variety of locations, including Germany and Panama. While raising her three children, she continued learning about cooking and nutrition, and was influenced by the surrounding culinary cultures.

"In Germany, I learned enough of the language to shop in local markets," she says. "I always liked using fresh and local ingredients. My husband's brother was married to a German, and I learned a lot about German cooking from her. I'd also go to restaurants and try to duplicate what they served. But I liked things spicier than most German food. My husband was Puerto Rican, and I found the cooking in Panama to be similar to what I'd learned from him. Panama was all about banana leaves, mangoes, coconuts, and fresh fish."

Melendez and her family ended up at Fort Hood, Texas, where she spent 12 years. "I always said, as soon as my youngest child finishes high school, I'm going to culinary school. I just felt that someday I had to do it, follow my passion, but somehow, it still didn't occur to me that I could cook for a living.

Volunteers preparing meals at Caritas
Volunteers preparing meals at Caritas (Photo By John Anderson)

"I'd been going to college forever, taking classes off and on, and since I had my first child, I'd been interested in wellness and prevention. I decided I ought to study nutrition. My youngest son graduated in June 1997, and by that August, I quit my job to go to Texas Women's University [in Denton] full time. I studied dietetics and nutrition for three years. I found out it wasn't my passion, but I was glad to have the knowledge. I got my degree in Family and Consumer Science with a minor in nutrition.

"After I graduated, I moved back to Chicago to be near my family. I knew I didn't want to be a dietician, and I started thinking, when I was on my deathbed, what was the thing I would regret not doing in my life? And that was going to culinary school. So in 2001, I finally enrolled in Washburne Culinary Institute in Chicago, which is a part of the Chicago City College system.

"I really didn't know what to expect," she continues. "I just looked around and said, 'I can't believe I'm actually here after dreaming about it for so long.' It was a great experience, an 80-week program, lots of hard work, lots of fun. We [the students] did a lot of volunteer cooking and fundraisers, and I worked part-time for a catering company. I just loved doing weddings."

After graduating, Melendez fantasized about having her own place, but knew she needed more experience. She worked in various restaurants, but the Chicago winters had begun to pale. In August 2003, she relocated to Austin, where her son lived. "I was in kind of a career crisis – I didn't know whether I should go back to office work, or try to go on with cooking professionally. So I was looking for both kinds of jobs, hoping for the best.

"When I saw the notice for the chef's position at a place called Caritas, I immediately reacted to the name. Caritas, love: That sounded good. And it was the last day the job was open, so I guess it was meant to be. I liked what they were doing, and they hired me in February 2004."

Life in the Caritas Kitchen

Running the Caritas kitchen is a long way from cooking for fancy, catered Chicago weddings. Nonetheless, Melendez maintains a spotless commercial kitchen that any restaurant would be proud to claim. In fact, in their last Health Department inspection, the kitchen earned a perfect score of 100, something to which restaurants aspire but seldom achieve.

A big difference from restaurant kitchens, however, is the contents of the refrigerator and pantry. One day when I was there, one entire refrigerator was full of grocery store boxed pies with imminent expiration dates. They could no longer be sold, so they were donated to Caritas.

Melendez explains, "I'm the chef and the kitchen manager. We work closely with the Pantry [that provides take-away groceries]; we're both part of the Basic Needs Program. Perishable donations come to us, and nonperishables go to either the kitchen or the food pantry.

"For our lunch clients, we make a big soup every day, and we always have sandwiches, unless we get a different kind of donation, like hot dogs and buns. We have one volunteer who donates all the lunch meat for the sandwiches – she brings it every week. Places like Albertsons and Sweetish Hill give us a lot of desserts: cakes, pies, doughnuts, and other baked goods.

"The Ladies of Charity group buys our milk, and an organization called Hunters for the Hungry gives us a bunch of venison each year. We just got a new freezer, so now we'll be able to take meat donations, freeze them, and use them as we need them.

"If greens get donated, we make salad; we have a volunteer who picks up produce donations every week from Randalls and Whole Foods. We get fresh herbs from the Austin Farmers' Market. Sometimes we have enough fruit to make a fruit salad, but that's rare, and really, we can't rely on too much of anything on a regular basis. But things just turn up unexpectedly – there's always something to make lunch out of."

When I asked Melendez about the most difficult part of her job, she thought for a minute and said, "Keeping it all coordinated, I guess: the volunteers, the donations, making things taste good." She officially works from 7am-4pm five days a week, but says her mind is in the kitchen all the time. "I'm always scheming about putting ingredients together, how to make the meals more nutritious, and how best to use the donations." When I inquired if she had a life beyond her job, she laughed and said, "I'm working on it. I need to get more exercise and recreation."

The Volunteer Kitchen Corps

Melendez is the only paid staff member in the kitchen, but she has a solid core of about 50 regular volunteers who arrive every weekday morning to help get the day's meal ready for the 11am lunch service. "I'll have about 10 people on Mondays, a different 10 on Tuesdays, and so on. Many of the regular volunteers have been coming every week for many years."

The kitchen also gets periodic assistance from volunteer groups of various companies and service organizations, such as IBM, Starbucks, and the UT women's basketball team. In addition, Melendez sometimes finds herself supervising kitchen workers who opt for court-mandated community service rather than fines or jail time.

What do the kitchen volunteers do? "They help with everything," she says. "Cutting up vegetables, making sandwiches, slicing cake, serving soup, cleaning up. It's all about getting the lunch ready."

Running a community kitchen and supervising a large and varied volunteer staff who may or may not have kitchen proficiency: Was this how Melendez thought she'd ever be applying her hard-won professional culinary skills? She smiles gently and says it wasn't, but that the work has its particular rewards.

"The best part of my job is providing good, hot meals to people who might not have any other place to eat. If I can make someone smile about the food, that makes it all worth it." end story

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Velda Melendez, Caritas Community Kitchen

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