Most know him as Chef Gus. On mornings from Monday through Thursday he makes breakfast for low-income people in the basement kitchen of Central United Methodist Church on Third Avenue. On Mondays he also makes dinner at the same place, sometimes for as many as 250 people.
For almost five years John “Gus” Olsen has worked five shifts in the kitchen, week in and week out, and now it’s time to move on. He’s retiring on May 12.
“He has been our volunteer head chef, and he has given and given and given,” said the Rev. Marj Johnston, of Shalom Ministries, which runs the meal program. “Today, he’s probably been here since 5:30 this morning, and he can never be certain who’s here to help him.”
On this particular Monday, after breakfast service was done, Olsen spent the morning in court meeting appointments for two Shalom Ministry clients who couldn’t be there. Now he’s roasting chicken, big juicy chunks of it, while white beans sit in tubs cooling after being boiled.
The menu is roast chicken with barbecue sauce, a white bean salad and a cracked wheat berry salad.
“I have Jell-O in the fridge, and there’s pie already in there,” said Olsen, gesturing toward the dining room.
Volunteers are setting up tables and chairs.
Another volunteer begins the dishes.
Cucumbers, cherry tomatoes and peppers are being chopped for the salad.
“It’s really all about timing,” said Olsen, checking on the chicken one more time. “Only once have we had the breakfast out late – I don’t think dinner has ever been more than five minutes late.”
There’s a core group of volunteers – some come on their own, some come in groups from churches that partner and support Shalom Ministries – and then there’s a steady rotation of volunteers who come in off the street.
Their personal circumstances, such as homelessness, unemployment or substance abuse, sometimes make them less-than-dependable volunteers.
“They really want to be here when they make that promise, but sometimes it doesn’t work out,” said Johnston.
And that’s perhaps the biggest challenge for the new head chef: how to make breakfast for between 75 and 175 people – never knowing where in that spectrum the number might fall – and never knowing how many people will be there to help you.
“I liken what I do to conducting an orchestra where all the instruments are a little out of tune, and you still got to make music with it,” said Olsen.
Longtime volunteer E.J. Foerster agrees.
“The chef must have a passion for food and be able to make much out of little,” said Foerster. “John has been so good about setting a high standard in the kitchen.”
The head chef oversees breakfast Monday through Thursday mornings, and dinner Monday night. The chef also goes to Second Harvest Food Bank for supplies and coordinates what is already in the cupboards with incoming food donations. Like in any good kitchen, the focus is on minimizing waste by reusing leftovers and extras in creative ways.
An added challenge is that the chef will not always know what’s available.
“The logistics of it all and the people management is interesting, and it can be challenging,” Olsen said.
Gina Myers, 16, a junior at Ferris High School, comes by as often as she can. She wants to be a chef and says volunteering at Shalom Ministries is giving her great hands-on training.
“I just do whatever John tells me to do,” she said, with a shy smile. “I cook pasta and rice. There’s a lot of chopping and cutting and washing of vegetables. And you have to sort through what is good or bad of the donated food.”
She hopes Olsen’s replacement will be as good a mentor to her as he’s been.
“John is patient and trusting in the kitchen – I get to do a lot of stuff. I think if I was the chef I’d be a lot more controlling,” Myers said. “But it’s fun working here.”
There are between 75 and 80 people for breakfast on a normal morning, but toward the end of the month there can be as many as 150 or 175, said Olsen.
Monday evening dinners count between 125 and 250.
“If it’s one of those months with five Mondays in it, then we get a lot more people toward the end of the month,” said Olsen. “We are seeing a lot of new faces and they are a lot younger than they used to be.”
Johnston said Shalom Ministries is open to dividing the head chef position into smaller chunks, realizing that it’s a huge commitment to make that much food for that many people every week.
“The one thing that will not change is the high quality of the food,” said Johnston. “It’s nutritionally sound and it’s safe food. There’s a big plate full for everyone.”
She’s hoping perhaps a kitchen professional will want to pick up where Olsen leaves off.
“We have to find someone who’s got the same passion for the ministry as Chef Gus,” said Johnston. “He’s really an advocate for low-income people. And he works so well with everyone.”
It’s now close to 4:30 p.m., and the steam and commotion are picking up in the kitchen.
Olsen doesn’t want any credit, and he doesn’t really want to talk about leaving.
“It’s not about me,” he said. “It is about the ministry and about feeding people.”