Ross Outten was winding down from an unexpectedly busy distribution day at the Lincoln Square Friendship Center’s Lawrence Avenue food pantry on Chicago’s North Side.
But there wasn’t much time.
Swiftly, Outten put on his chef’s cap and apron and hustled to the kitchen, where he began prepping a meal large enough to feed dozens. Soon, he was chopping onions, pouring boxes of pasta into a large pot, and prepping fillets of chicken to be grilled.
In August, the Friendship Center — one of the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s partner agencies — launched its weekly community dinners on Thursday nights. It’s an expansion of its pantry program that currently serves 1,700 people each month through its Lincoln Square and North Park locations.
“It’s a little bit of a sprint to get from one to the other,” said Outten, 41, the center’s director of development and coordinator of the new dinner program. “But we are learning and every week we’re getting better at it.”
Despite the “hectic” turnaround — the pantry closes at 4 p.m. and the dinner begins at 6 p.m. — Outten said the center intentionally chose Thursday nights to fill a need in its community. After researching the need, Outten said, the center’s staff realized there were few other options for a free hot meal on a Thursday night on the North Side.
The crowds have been around 30 to 40 people for the first few dinners. But Outten said he expects to feed between 80 and 100 every week as word gets out.
And while the center’s pantry serves the neighborhoods of Albany Park, North Park, Lincoln Square, Ravenswood and West Ridge, the Thursday night dinners are open to anyone.
Adding hot meals was a long-term goal for the Friendship Center, Outten said. It’s a goal they were able to reach far sooner than expected with the pantry’s relocation last May to a former restaurant building.
Remnants of the building’s former life are still visible throughout. The large red sign displaying the name of the former Chinese restaurant still hangs outside. Coffee and snacks are now served from behind the wooden restaurant bar during the pantry’s distribution hours.
And the kitchen is where Outten’s passions converge as he cooks dinner for people in need.
During the Food Depository’s visit last week, he made a “simple and fresh” Caprese pasta with chicken. The penne rigate was flavored with cherry tomatoes, mozzarella, onions, olive oil, and basil. Outten picked the basil from the center’s small herb garden, and noted other fresh ingredients donated from Montrose Metra Community Gardens and the Ravenswood Farmers Market.
Citing the local diversity, particularly the vibrant, multi-ethnic immigrant communities that live in neighborhoods like Albany Park and West Ridge, Outten explained that he wants to make nutritious dinners that appeal to a variety of tastes and dietary restrictions. There will also always be a vegetarian option.
He hopes to try and use some of the community’s cultural influences in future dinners.
“I’m going to get a cross-cultural lesson in some new cooking techniques, hopefully, over time,” Outten said.
Sharing a meal with family, neighbors
Eva Jaramillo, a 39-year-old Albany Park resident, her husband Abdon Benitez, and their three daughters started coming to the Friendship Center’s pantry this past month since going down to a single-income household.
Jaramillo, who used to work in a restaurant kitchen, has been staying home with their 14-month-old daughter Isabella. Isabella was born premature, Jaramillo said, and receives therapy during the week.
As someone who is always taking care of her household, Jaramillo said, it’s nice to have someone cook for her for a change.
“I’m staying at the table with my family, with my neighbors … it’s perfect,” she said.
As a retiree on a fixed income, Evelyn Dillon, 60, of Bowmanville also turns to the Friendship Center as needed and has been trying out the new community offering.
“People are nice and friendly, you get to meet new people,” Dillon said.
Natalie, Jaramillo’s 10-year-old daughter, chimed in: “That’s why it’s called the Friendship Center!”
A desire to give back
For Outten, who joined the Friendship Center two and a half years ago, cooking is the most familiar part of the job. He joined the nonprofit world after more than two decades in the restaurant industry. Most recently, he owned a local restaurant, Dolce Casa Café, for six years. There, he enjoyed organizing monthly fundraisers, but found it was difficult to juggle with the demands of a small business.
He sold his restaurant knowing he wanted to find some way to make giving back his full-time job.
“I sold my business with no real plan, just kind of a desire to do something different,” he recalled.
He was familiar with the Friendship Center, and the former manager was a customer at his restaurant and recommended he apply for the job. He said he believes he got the job, in part, because of the center’s desire to eventually start offering dinners.
Volunteer Stefanie Coleman, a pastor from the Lincoln Square Community Christian Church, has been serving at the Friendship Center for the past six years. At the recent Thursday night dinner, she helped prep the meal by cutting fresh bread and tomatoes, taking guests’ orders, and running plates and drinks.
Within Coleman’s congregation, there are people who struggle with homelessness and food insecurity.
She’s happy to be able to tell them they can stop by the center for a free meal.
“It’s just nice to have people in Lincoln Square who are making sure that people who are typically marginalized know they have a place,” the pastor said.