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After 16 weeks of cooking and more than 105,000 meals prepared, the Chow Train chefs are hanging up their spatulas on Thursday, satisfied with the knowledge that the homeless and seniors they’ve cooked for will receive enough food to last them through the summer.
The nonprofit organization restarted its operations earlier this year as the coronavirus pandemic triggered a greater need for food relief. The Chow Train wound down its weekly food service for homeless individuals in 2018, but was always ready to respond to disasters, said founder Joan Cheever.
Since March, Cheever, husband Dennis Quinn, and professional chefs they hired have been cooking in the downtown restaurant kitchen of Range on East Houston Street. The team has prepared more than 105,000 meals for the Catholic Worker House and Meals on Wheels, which then distribute that food to people who need it.
Catholic Worker House, which serves homeless people meals on the East Side, and Meals on Wheels, which delivers to the elderly and disabled, should have enough meals stockpiled to last them through August, Cheever said.
“I feel good [that] we put Catholic Worker House and Meals on Wheels … in a position where they have enough food until the end of the summer,” she said. “I didn’t want to leave them in the lurch, and I worry about the homeless all the time. We were able to knock out all these meals and leave them with a lot of food, frozen, so that they’ll be prepared for the next few months.”
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Cheever said she isn’t sure how long the Chow Train will suspend food service, but with such intense output for four months, the chefs need a break.
“I just know that we’re all exhausted,” she said. “You have to be careful when you get exhausted in a kitchen – that’s when accidents happen. … But we’ve all been really careful and the output has been incredible and the crew has been incredible. They’re very passionate. They’re very focused, energetic.”
The 100,000-plus meals the Chow Train prepared in the last four months are about as many as it produced in 13 years before the pandemic, including its weekly food service and the meals prepared in response to 10 previous disasters, Cheever said.
The Chow Train had not responded to a disaster since Hurricane Harvey, but the economic distress that has accompanied the pandemic drove Cheever to start the Chow Train’s operations again.
“It wasn’t really hard to make the decision to go right in there and start cooking,” Cheever said.
The Chow Train chefs cooked their last meals on Thursday. The team has been preparing green chicken enchiladas, pasta bolognese, and picadillo as some of their final dishes, Cheever said. She hasn’t been including her former signature vegetable soup with their deliveries to Meals on Wheels and the Catholic Worker House, but she makes sure to include pans of roasted vegetables with every meal.
“In the beginning, I think we just started with comfort food,” Cheever said. “And I just figured, don’t go crazy. Keep it simple, but make it delicious and tasty and make sure that you have fresh ingredients.”
The Chow Train also started preparing smaller amounts of food for Folklores Coffee House at the end of May, delivering 600 meals every week for four weeks. Those meals go to senior citizens, Cheever said.
After Thursday, Cheever will return the keys of Range to chef and owner Jason Dady, whom she credited with much of the Chow Train success. Without his kitchen, the organization would not have been able to produce so many meals, she said.
“He just handed us the keys to his kitchen and said, ‘Go for it,’” she said. “I didn’t even really know Jason very well before this. Now I feel like he’s my brother from another mother.”
Dady said he was impressed by how much Cheever and the Chow Train had been able to do in four months.
“They should just be applauded for the effort that they put in for so long to really help people that needed it,” said Dady, who has five restaurants in San Antonio. “She wants to give me a lot of credit but I really don’t deserve much – I just did the right thing to do. We had an open kitchen and we wanted to make sure it went to good use.”