This Chef Helps At-Risk Women Feel at Home for the Holidays
There was a small mountain of diced onions on the table, flanked by a pot of quartered potatoes and the scraped-out, fleshy insides of a honeynut squash from the farmers' market. But this was not a Lower East Side restaurant kitchen preparing for dinner service, it was Hopper Home Transitional Shelter, a 38-bed homeless shelter for women run by the Women’s Prison Association.
On Wednesday night, Abigail Hitchcock, chef and co-owner of Abigail’s Kitchen in Manhattan's West Village, took over Hopper Home’s community room and kitchen to teach residents on how to cook a Thanksgiving dinner. Together, the half-dozen women prepared stuffing, mashed potatoes, roasted cauliflower, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. Of course, there was gravy.
“Because what does everyone want?” Hitchcock—who everyone calls "Chef Abby"—asked the small crowd.
“Gravy!” the women called out in unison.
Hitchcock’s day began with a visit to the Union Square Greenmarket for potatoes, onions, celery. garlic, mint, sage, other herbs, and three different types of cauliflower. “I always go to the farmer's market and explain to the women this is stuff that you can get. It doesn't have to be expensive,” Hitchcock told Food & Wine.
That night, Hitchcock brought her own containers of turkey stock—as well as two pie crusts she’d baked—to save on time. A benefactor donated a turkey for the night’s dinner, which let the chef spend more on her market bounty and other items on the night’s shopping list, like eggs, bags of cranberries, cream, and butter.
WPA supplies Hitchcock with $100 to spend on ingredients for these classes, and the chef has free rein to develop the menus. She keeps the ingredient list simple, seasonal, and local as possible. The idea, she explained, was to teach the Hopper Home’s residents how to make healthy dishes they could make cheaply and easily on their own after they leave the shelter.
Hitchcock’s path to the Hopper Home kitchen was serendipitous. The chef ran Camaje Bistro in the West Village for 21 years, before rebranding the space this spring as Abigail’s Kitchen. In addition to being a popular French bistro, the space became known for its Dinners in the Dark series, a performance art-slash-culinary experience where diners eat a meal while blindfolded. Hitchcock began hosting them 15 years ago as a riff on the Dans Le Noir dinner series that originated in Europe. Her dinners has become hugely popular, and this summer had a write-up in Vanity Fair. (Abigail’s Kitchen does not do dinner service and instead focuses on Dinners in the Dark and cooking classes.)
In the summer of 2018, an intern at Hopper Home attended a Dinner in the Dark. Impressed by the creativity of the meal, she asked Hitchcock if she would be open to teaching a cooking class as part of its WPA Arts program. Hitchcock readily agreed.
Her sessions are a lighter moment at Hopper Home, which provides transitional housing for women at all stages of involvement in the justice system. Some found WPA because they're seeking alternatives to incarceration; others come after spending time in prison or jail. Women who live at Hopper Home participate in a program to seek permanent housing and employment, as well as mental health services, sobriety, and reunification with their children.
WPA Arts hosts a different arts event every Wednesday night; Hitchcock has taught her cooking class every few months. Cheryl Paley, the project director of WPA Arts, said residents “flock to Abby” on the nights she teaches. It’s an important way to bring the Hopper Home community together for a class and a meal as they prepare to transition out of the shelter.
“Cooking gives people an opportunity to express very unique and intimate pieces of themselves, and that’s what we aim to do,” said Paley. “Cooking also creates community, and all of those are our mission.”
The cooking classes began in August 2018 with a lot of improvisation. “[The shelter] actually didn't have a functioning kitchen when I first started over there,” said Hitchcock. But a broken stove was not a deterrent. “For the first several months, we were doing everything on really slow hot plates.”
Last spring, the Junior League of New York renovated the shelter’s industrial-sized kitchen with a new stove. There’s a large fridge and a large freezer, plus a mishmash of cooking utensils. Hitchcock usually brings some of her own equipment, like a roasting pan for that night’s turkey. She once lugged her own blender to the shelter for a lesson on making pumpkin soup. So far she has taught classes on roasting and grilling meat and fish. Vegetables feature prominently.
“We almost always make a salad, because it's just such wonderful, fresh food, and I love to teach people how to make a vinaigrette,” Hitchcock said. Some of the residents are “quite enthusiastic about cooking,” she continued. “But the ‘from scratch,’ ‘clean cooking’ is not something that seems to be on everyone's radar. Endlessly, I hear comments that the food feels so fresh.”
On Wednesday, Hitchcock began with a lesson on basic knife skills, and talked through the ingredients. Onions for the gravy needed to be more finely chopped than onions for the stuffing, the skins of the potatoes could stay on for additional nutrients. She passed around leaves of sage for the women to smell.
Christmas music played from someone’s phone while a half-dozen residents chopped vegetables in the community room adjacent to the kitchen. Most of the residents are in their forties and fifties, and some had past experience cooking.
Selena, one of Hitchcock’s most eager students that night, had cooked Thanksgiving dinner for her family in the past. “I did the turkey, I did the stuffing,” she said. She was skeptical about Hitchcock’s salt-and-pepper-only seasoning of the bird, curious at how it would compare with the more elaborate seasoning she’s used to from the Spanish cooking she grew up with.
“If I ever get remotely fancy, it’s maybe putting herbs under the skin,” explained Hitchcock, promising the bird would still be flavorful. It was.
Once the prep work was finished, Hitchcock arranged the turkey and sheet pans of chopped cauliflower fit Tetris-style in the oven. She used a Microplane tool to zest an orange into the cranberry sauce on the stove, and showed the women how to mash the boiled potatoes with a whisk, which she explained she prefers to a masher.
A WPA employee called out, “Guys, it’s gravy time!” and everyone gathered around the stove to watch Hitchocok make a paste out of the butter and flour. Phones all appeared to take pictures of the gravy; even the bird-carving moment didn't inspire so many shots.
Dinner was served buffet style on paper plates, while people chatted about their desert island meal (sandwiches, tacos, mac ‘n' cheese). More residents of Hopper Home appeared downstairs to join the feast. Every single dish, everyone agreed, was delicious.
At the end of the evening, Selena sat eating a slice of pumpkin pie, and smiled at the women around her. On Thanksgiving Day, she might see her daughter, who is living with relatives, but she didn’t really know what her plans were yet. Tonight’s meal was important to her.
“It felt like a family atmosphere,” she said. “I'm happy ... I totally forgot about my mom passing away, and me being homeless right now and not able to make my own Thanksgiving dinner. This was a really good experience. This made me feel like home.”