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‘Restaurant-quality, not shelter-quality’

Giving lunch, and respect, to the needy

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By Jane Dornbusch
Globe Correspondent / December 15, 2010

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Curry-seasoned haddock (for vegetarians, tofu) is perched on steamed greens in a balsamic vinaigrette, the greens in turn are set on a puree of Jerusalem artichokes and roasted garlic. The fish is garnished with sauteed baby turnips and Swiss chard stems. Accompanying the dish is quinoa pilaf with winter squash and Chinese long beans.

This is lunch at the Women’s Lunch Place, a day shelter for poor and homeless women, located in the basement of the Church of the Covenant on Newbury Street. Here, restaurant-quality food is served, free of charge, six days a week to all women (and their children) who want it. Many of the guests are among the city’s neediest, the chronic homeless; others are simply down on their luck. Besides free lunch and breakfast, there is help with legal and housing issues, financial assistance, a wellness program, hot showers, a nap room, even art classes. “We’re here to provide a variety of services to women in an atmosphere of dignity and respect,’’ explains Lauren Reilly, director of development.

But the heart of the Women’s Lunch Place is lunch, and the heart of the kitchen is Josh Birdsall. The bearded, ponytailed, soft-spoken chef has been on the job since August, and by all accounts, he treats his dishes with the same care and respect as the shelter does its guests.

By 11 a.m., the kitchen is humming. Volunteers chop, prep, and cook under the watchful supervision of Birdsall, 27, who seems to be everywhere at once. The chef came here after stints at Whole Foods and Craigie Street Bistrot. He had worked in restaurants throughout college (his degree is in literature).

“He’s really turned it around,’’ says Theresa Marks, who is both a guest and a kitchen volunteer (the whole rotating kitchen crew is made up entirely of volunteers). “I worked at Legal Sea Foods for 15 years, and I’ve learned more from him in three months than I ever did there,’’ she says, patting olive oil, then curry powder, onto the haddock. “This is restaurant-quality food, not shelter-quality food.’’

“Our chef is wonderful. Now there’s lots more fruits and vegetables,’’ chimes in Valomy Mamousette, who, like Marks, is both a volunteer and a guest. Elegantly dressed and made up, Mamousette has been coming here for nine years, and, she says, “If not for this place, I don’t know what I’d do.’’

Some of the lessons learned in high-end kitchens apply here. Craigie Street’s constantly changing menus taught Birdsall to think on his feet and be creative, a necessary skill for a cook working within the WLP’s tight budgetary and logistical constraints. Some raw ingredients come from the Greater Boston Food Bank; those supplies, welcome as they are, can be unpredictable. Birdsall also orders from A. Russo & Sons, the Watertown produce wholesaler. Russo’s does not charge for deliveries, which helps. “It’s getting harder and harder to work within the budget, as our plate count goes up,’’ says Birdsall, known to all as Chef Josh.

But Birdsall is committed to serving as many varieties of protein, grains, fruits, and vegetables as possible. Some — such as today’s quinoa — may be unfamiliar to the guests. “First they say, ‘What’s ki-no-ah?’ Then they try it,’’ he says. And, he admits, “Some things flop. They don’t like the way I cook collard greens, because they want them stewed to death.’’ Undaunted, he keeps introducing new foods. He rarely repeats a menu, and without exception, guests say they appreciate the increased variety and quality he’s brought in.

As time draws closer to the noon lunch hour, the pace picks up. Trays of fish and tofu rotate in and out of the two ovens; an assembly line is set up so volunteers can efficiently plate food. Tables are draped in colorful linens and adorned with fresh flowers. Volunteers bring plated lunches out to waiting guests. Portions are intentionally large: For many guests, this may be the only meal of the day. Takeout containers are provided for those who want to save leftovers or eat their meal elsewhere.

The din of the dining room temporarily diminishes as everyone tucks in. Birdsall takes a moment to reflect on the contrast between cooking here and other kitchen jobs he’s held.

This kind of work, he says, brings its unique satisfaction. “I get to do food for people who really need it. There’s no promises, no pretensions,’’ he says. “Just good, simple, honest food — and it feeds people beyond just filling their bellies.’’

For more information on the Women’s Lunch Place, go to www.womenslunchplace.org.

Jane Dornbusch can be reached at jdornbusch@verizon.net.