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Washington Voices

Chef oversees free-meal restaurant

Thu., Aug. 29, 2013

Erin Streicher works in a never-ending episode of “Iron Chef,” never quite knowing what the surprise ingredient may be.

Streicher is the chef at Women and Children’s Free Restaurant, in charge of preparing as many as 300 meals – all from donated food items – on any ordinary workday.

“The more meals the merrier,” Streicher said while checking the walk-in coolers and freezers on a recent Wednesday morning. “Stuff shows up all the time.” One day it’s 25 pounds of veal. Another day it is two cardboard boxes full of homegrown squash. A couple of boxes of blueberries and a case of backyard tomatoes and garlic also arrived.

And there is never a shortage of peanut butter.

“I think I know 90 million ways of cooking with peanut butter,” Streicher said, laughing.

The Women and Children’s Free Restaurant has been feeding families for 25 years. Dinner is served on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and lunch is served on Fridays. Clients dine at tables set with a tablecloth and flowers, and they are waited on by volunteers. As many as 150 clients show up for dinner.

Streicher, who graduated from the culinary arts program at Spokane Community College, is energetic and organized, two skills that come in handy when working with a staff of volunteers who may or may not have kitchen experience.

“The working environment in a professional kitchen can be pretty tough; you are told what to do and that’s it,” Streicher said. “Our volunteers are here to make a difference, and we just roll with it. We try to have fun.”

She keeps a running inventory of freezers, coolers and pantries in her head and relies on volunteers to sort through and organize food donations.

“Sometimes the volunteers have ideas for what to make with whatever it is we have a lot of,” Streicher said, adding that she has a small budget to purchase ingredients. “We really are fortunate. Donations just continue to come in.”

On the menu this Wednesday is biscuits and gravy, but the kitchen is also making potato salad, prepping for beef stroganoff, baking coffee brownies and making Jell-O.

“Today we are sending food over to Hope House for around 50 people and to St. Margaret’s Shelter for 20 people,” Streicher said, as the day’s four volunteers show up.

The temperature in the basement kitchen starts out at around 80 degrees and one of the first things Streicher does is turn on ceiling fans and ventilators.

“I don’t plan on baking lasagna when it’s 95 degrees outside,” Streicher said. “When it’s hot I go out of my way to not turn on the stove.”

Volunteers Patti Kearsley and Balena Nolan grab cookie sheets full of cooked, diced potatoes in the fridge and begin making potato salad.

Nolan is a culinary student from SCC and Kearsley has volunteered in the kitchen every Wednesday for five or six years. They chat and joke as they get to work.

“We have very free reins here,” Kearsley said. “I suppose if we asked Erin for a recipe she’d give us one, but mostly we just go at it.” Dozens of volunteers staff the kitchen, usually in groups of five or six at a time. Around holidays and other extra busy times, more volunteers are called in.

“We couldn’t do it without them,” Streicher said, gesturing toward Kearsley and Eric Nelson, another culinary student with a day job at a downtown restaurant, who is slicing meat for the stroganoff.

“Compared to most professional kitchens this kitchen is huge – we have lots of space,” Nelson said. “And Erin is phenomenal to work with.”

By 10:20 a.m. the temperature has crept up to 90 degrees, and the kitchen is bustling.

Streicher helps Nelson pour pan drippings from the huge pan he’s been browning meat in.

A pot of pasta is at a full boil on the back burner, and Nolan is making 24 hard-boiled eggs for the potato salad.

A volunteer cleaning crew shows up to clean the dining room and when someone wants to stock the bathrooms with toilet paper, Streicher is the one who knows where it is and takes time to show the volunteer.

Back in the kitchen she crosses out another item on the menu she’s written on a yellow legal pad, and she checks to see if the brownies are done.

She has just returned from a stint as a training camp chef for the Seattle Seahawks.

“That was just so cool,” Streicher said about her West Side experience. “They are very careful with what they put into their bodies.” The Seahawks sent her back to Spokane with a couple of huge pans, plates, salt and pepper shakers and lots of other donations.

“The chef just went through their stuff and said, ‘Here, take this, and take that, and take this,’ ” Streicher said. “We are super grateful for that.”

She gets a quick break when a longtime volunteer shows up to take her for a ride in a convertible Tesla sports car.

“I’ll be right back,” Streicher yells, as she bounds up the stairs.

A few minutes later she comes bouncing back in again and heads right back to work, organizing, cleaning, checking, making sure everything is taken care of.

And making sure the meals taste good.

“We don’t always have the highest quality ingredients, but we make sure we cook the best tasting food we can,” she said. “The ladies deserve a great meal.”

This summer, the Voices have been writing about people with unusual jobs.

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