Cooks with a purpose serve food for thought
By Kevin Joy
Pitchers of grapefruit cocktails and locally made spirits were offered. Old records of Italian pop songs played on a stereo.
The comfortable scene with its cool guests suggested a hip magazine spread on entertaining.
Yet, aided by an unlikely group of line cooks, the setting inside the frills-free Downtown YMCA reflected a deeper purpose.
Graduates of Catch Court — a Franklin County program that helps prostitutes kick abusive men, drugs and the related lifestyle — prepared a high-end menu of celery-root salad, garlic soup, chorizo and honeycomb flan.
The gourmet food puts a face on Freedom a la Cart, which employs eight people part time.
“It’s showing that these women, some of them who have never worked in the kitchen or held a job on paper before, are capable of creating this elevated product,” said executive chef Lara Yazvac, formerly of the Northstar Cafe.
Profits from the meal — at $50 a person — benefited Doma, a nonprofit that helps survivors of human trafficking.
In business since 2011, Freedom a la Cart ranks among other little-known food operations throughout central Ohio whose menus are seasoned with large helpings of charity.
Here’s a sampling of the outreach efforts and their diverse culinary offerings:
Furthering a mission
It is, as a vibrant mural declares, “A Marlene Carson Vision.”
The vision extends to her daily homemade spread of soul food, featuring marshmallow-topped yams, pickles marinated in Kool-Aid, and beef brisket made from her mother’s recipe.
A closer look around the establishment at 2458 Cleveland Ave. reveals an altruistic mission: A window poster alerts passers-by to the plague of modern slavery.
Another by the cash register depicts police photos of battered women and girls trapped in the sex trade.
Boujhetto’s — whose name merges bougie (French for “candle”) and ghetto — serves cuisine as a means to support Rahab’s Hideaway, Carson’s safe house for exploited women.
All nine female employees, who are paid for their work, are survivors of human trafficking.
“With funding so limited, this is another way to help,” said Carson, 50, a Columbus native who was led into prostitution as an eighth-grader and, as an adult, became an advocate for women who face similar problems. Tylondia Pruitt, a Boujhetto’s cook, joked about how she “didn’t know how to boil water for eggs” until last year. Since then, the 29-year-old said, she has “learned how to provide for my family” of two children.
Carson, recently featured on Oprah Winfrey’s official website, plans to expand her payroll — and her reach — with a food truck in the summer.
Despite the dire circumstances that inspired the business, mealtime remains a happy time.
“When you come in,” said Carson, 50, “I want you to feel love and family.”
Feeding the masses
It shares a kitchen with Meals-on-Wheels but might offer more upscale eats, such as rosemary-shrimp skewers and romaine salad with ahi tuna.
Stemming largely from wedding parties and corporate orders, earnings support the nonprofit, which helps senior citizens with services such as cancer screenings, a food pantry and domestic-violence prevention.
“The vast majority of folks like that they know where the money’s going,” CEO Chuck Gehring said.
Lauren Wilson, general manager of Freshbox Catering, agreed.
A philanthropic connection resonates with customers , said Wilson, whose Downtown operation is owned by Lutheran Social Services of Central Ohio .
With guidance and training, homeless residents of the Faith Mission shelter prepare gourmet sandwiches and salads for box lunches — with bulk orders bound for customers ranging from corporations to church groups.
Workers are paid and receive counseling to help secure jobs in the hospitality industry.
Some clients choose Freshbox for its menu. And plenty of others do so for the food.
“We don’t expect anyone to make a concession on quality and service just because we have a great social mission,” said Wilson, adding that 22 Freshbox alumni have found permanent employment and housing since 2010.
“But it definitely gives us an edge.”
Making a mark
(Standard street meat, it isn’t: The cart has featured chimichurri roast beef, white-bean empanadas, sweet-potato soup and ginger lemonade.)
In July, the cooks inhabited an old commercial kitchen in the YMCA, 40 W. Long St. Prep work was previously done at Double Happiness, a Brewery District bar.
The permanence has helped birth a lunch counter on the Y’s first floor as well as a growing catering business that has fed, among others, Gov. John Kasich and executives of the United Way and Women’s Fund of Central Ohio.
And the supper club, introduced in January, will continue: Dinners are planned for Friday and Saturday, with RSVP details on Facebook.
During the last such gathering, attendees knew that their money would support Doma outreach (and help pay the staff), but that back story wasn’t discussed at the table.
North Side resident Nick Nelson, 31, viewed the meal as atypical advocacy — “a neat way to address . . . a problem right in our backyard.”
Missions needn’t preach, said Freedom a la Cart founder Julie Clark, but positive messages can be marketable.
With her staff as proof, she envisions a series of franchised restaurants.
“The survivors we employ,” Clark said, “are capable of anything.”
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