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Soul-Soothing Soups

Mary Ellen Diaz’s soups are good enough for Chicago’s best restaurants. Instead, she gives them away to people in need.

"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.

Where do most of your ingredients come from?
I use a lot of the same local suppliers that I did when I was a restaurant chef. The farmers I work with are community-based and a bit quirky and anti-establishment, like me.

Is soup a big part of your program?
Definitely. In the fall and winter we serve soup on a street corner every Tuesday night to homeless youth. We probably have 30 different recipes. We hide a lot of vegetables in our soups—I play the same game with the kids on the streets that I do with my own two kids. They might think they’re eating just cheddar cheese soup but it’s been thickened with vegetables like butternut squash.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned since starting First Slice?
The smallest things can help change somebody’s life. Saying hello to a homeless person instead of looking away. Or cooking something really simple and giving it to a homeless person so she feels good. Once I was at a shelter and saw a woman crying. I offered her some muffins, and she ate so many of them. I didn’t really think about it until I saw her out on the street weeks later and she lifted up her sleeve and pinched her skin and said that I gave her her fat back. She had been addicted to drugs and anorexic, and she said the muffins were so good they gave her back an appetite. She was so happy about gaining weight.

How do you work with volunteers?
There’s a food writer who comes in four hours a week and all she does is roll pie dough for us. She just loves pie dough. We serve a lot of pie, and making pie dough is really therapeutic. There’s a man who comes in and just wants to chop onions. He recently applied for a job at a new gourmet store. He didn’t get it, but I was thrilled that chopping onions gave him the confidence to start looking for a job; he’s been out of work for so many years.

What’s the best way for people to help feed the homeless?
Make a connection with a food pantry and find a way to donate nutritious food. Fresh fruit and vegetables are always appreciated. Canned beans are always great to have around. Rice and all sorts of dried grains. Canned tomatoes and jarred salsa. I have issues with the fact that the first thing I see in most food pantries are overstarched, oversugared things. Homeless people need nutritious food as much as anyone, even more.

What do you eat to stay healthy?
A lot of salads, like one with carrots from the farm, radishes, organic greens, blue cheese, spiced pecans and pepitas [pumpkin seeds]. With bacon on the side.

How do you find balance in your life between work and family?
What’s neat is that I can bring my kids to anything we do at First Slice; they love what I do and they love to come with me. The people get a kick out of them, and vice versa. My daughter mentioned to me this morning that when it’s her birthday, she is going to have a party and ask people to bring her a toy that she can donate to kids in need. How great is that?

Published November 2006
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