"Pie is a symbol of community, and giving the first slice is like giving the best," says Mary Ellen Diaz, the founder of an innovative Chicago soup kitchen called First Slice. "This organization gives the first slice to people who rarely get anything special." A former chef at Chicago’s acclaimed North Pond restaurant, Diaz feeds 400 homeless people each week, preparing delicious meals with fresh, locally grown, mostly organic ingredients—dishes like butternut squash soup or spicy multigrain-vegetable soup. Diaz has thought up two inspired ways for the community to help her cause: Chicagoans can sign up for several months’ worth of prepared meals to go (duck confit with sour cherries, mojito chicken) or they can eat at First Slice Pie Café, in the Lincoln Square area (4401 N. Ravenswood Ave.; 773-506-7380 or firstslice.org). The year-old café serves a seasonal menu, including made-from-scratch pies. Profits from both the private-chef service and the café help feed the homeless.
What inspired you to leave your job as a chef and launch First Slice?
I had a great restaurant career, but I felt like I had to make a choice about whether or not to stay. I wanted to be home at night reading books to my little girl instead of slaving away in the kitchen. So it actually started with me wanting to have time for my family while I was figuring out what to do. I was also reading a lot about Jane Addams [the social reformer who co-founded Chicago’s Hull House, one of America’s first settlement houses, in 1889]. She ran her own community kitchen that served food to people living on the street. She also helped women who were trying to enter the workforce. Jane Addams is still very much the inspiration for First Slice. I also started volunteering in soup kitchens, and I realized feeding 40 to 50 people takes talent. I never thought of using my skills that way until then.
What kind of food do you cook at First Slice?
Last year we made a lot of Cajun food to feed displaced victims of Hurricane Katrina. We also get a lot of requests for food with Latin flavors, dishes that might use tortillas. Smothered pork chops are really popular. A pot of greens is definitely a big thing, because most people on the street don’t have access to farm-fresh produce. It’s interesting: A lot of our clientele grew up in rural communities, and they know more about growing fruit and vegetables than I do. They ask really specific questions about the soil and the farming methods. It’s wonderful that we can make that fresh-from-the-farm connection.