As the old adage goes, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. In mid-July, with ovens and stoves cranking to cook enough food for the 250+ people who join us for every meal, the Resource Center Soup Kitchen can get hot. But July’s Volunteer of the Month, John Reali, is no stranger to heat in the kitchen—John owned and operated the Village Café, a local favorite for decades on Newbury Street in Portland. Today, we are so lucky to have John preparing lunch for our neighbors three days a week at the Preble Street Resource Center Soup Kitchen, sharing his passion for good food, his infectious humor, and his gracious, humble approach to service.
John is the kind of volunteer who can do whatever is needed, whether it’s chopping a bunch of veggies or creating an entire meal from scratch.
But being good in the kitchen isn’t all it takes to be named a Preble Street Volunteer of the Month. Many can wield a knife or stir a pot, but not everyone can keep a cool head in a busy kitchen environment, especially in the heat of summer. Even in the most chaotic circumstances, John remains completely unflappable and entirely flexible. As one Food Programs staff person said, “I’m always impressed that he shows up to work fully present and engaged in what we are doing.”
An ever-present challenge at the Resource Center Soup Kitchen is the need to create a good, healthy meal out of the random ingredients donated to Preble Street. After running his own restaurant for so many years, John is “an ingenious master of cobbling together ingredients from a limited, ever-changing, and sometimes bizarre pantry of donated foods, successfully cooking meals that not only feed many, but are incredibly delicious,” said Philippa, a Food Programs staff member.
Yet John’s greatest gift, more than his steady hand or his creative approach to cooking, is the incredible balance he maintains between leadership and being lead. Many volunteers who join us in the soup kitchen every day have little to no experience cooking professionally—not even all our talented kitchen staff have John’s breadth and depth of knowledge. He gently directs volunteers of all ages and levels of experience while lending a hand to staff wherever is needed. He does it kindly, and he does it with a smile. “Every shift we work together is a different balance of how much he or I take the lead and he is fine with literally any amount or lack of leadership,” said Food Programs staff member Deena. “He’s humble and flexible.”
John is a leader and mentor to fellow volunteers, an invaluable resource of knowledge and accountability to staff, and a wonderful friend to all who cross his path. When asked what kind of food John would be, staff summed him up perfectly: “A perfectly seasoned tomato sauce, the backbone of a variety of meals… just like John!”
Thank you, John, for your compassion, flexibility, and perfectly seasoned sauces! We could not do it without you.