It’s 9 AM at Toni’s Kitchen and lead chef Jana Joyce is already a whirl of activity. She’s jump-starting the prep work: hauling a crate of potatoes from the pantry to a kitchen counter, starting the roux for today’s soup and peeling about three dozen carrots. With her iphone blasting Aretha and a quick jolt of coffee, Jana is ready for another morning of remarkable culinary collaboration that is the heart and soul of Toni’s Kitchen.
She quickly consults with Kitchen Manager Veronique Ramsey to confirm that donated and purchased ingredients are at the ready for today’s expected 65 lunch guests.
On the menu: vegetable kabobs, fish chowder, Italian meatballs with pasta, sautéed broccoli rabe and fruit for dessert. It’s a typical from-scratch, always-nutritious, knock-your-socks-off meal offered at Toni’s that torpedoes any notions of traditional dreary soup kitchen fare.
Jana warmly welcomes the volunteer kitchen staffers as they arrive. She and Veronique then deploy their troops: some scrub and chop vegetables, others prep the fish, others make the meatballs, while still others sort and create fruit cups. Soon the rhythmic sound of knives hitting cutting boards and the steady din of conversation mingles with the intoxicating scent of soup on the stove. The kitchen is humming and, as Jana says, “The whole vibe is so much fun.” And it’s all orchestrated under her experienced eye.
She comes by her kitchen confidence honestly.
“I have always loved food and feeding large quantities of people,” Jana says.
This passion is a follow-the-crumbs plot line through her life, starting as a child cooking in her grandmother’s Brooklyn kitchen, to running a catering business from her Montclair home, to her current stint as a student at The Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan. Jana has already auditioned in some of the City’s hottest restaurants including Spice Kitchen, Gramercy Tavern and Bouchon Bakery. Her discipline, organization, and ability to remain calm in a professional setting are among the invaluable tools she brings to Toni’s.
“We have a big job to do: prepare and plate a delicious and nutritious hot meal, respectfully served to our guests, in a very short period of time,” she says.
According to Jana, what makes all the moving parts of the kitchen mesh so fluidly is that “all the volunteers really want to be here. It makes a huge difference to work with people who are enthusiastic about getting the job done and doing the best they can do.”
She also sees an added benefit to volunteering. “If you are sad or lonely, doing good for other people is the best medicine.”
When asked about what Toni’s Kitchen means to our guests, she pauses for a moment. ”Toni’s first and foremost guarantees a hot, nutritious meal for someone who may not have otherwise had one that day. But it also means community. I see guests sitting next to their friends as they dine, sharing their lives. And what I really like is that there is no judgment. We provide a meal to whoever wants one. That’s it.”
After a few short hours of cooking, the clock is fast approaching 11:30 AM. Kitchen activity speeds up and the anticipation is palpable. Volunteers start to plate the dishes assembly-line style, then place them onto rolling carts. The doors open. Guests help themselves to coffee or tea and then greet friends at their tables. Lunch service begins.
“What’s really nice is after the meal, when a guest pops into the kitchen and says, ‘Wow, that soup was delicious.’ Or, ‘I loved the stew,’” Jana says.