On the narrow steps that lead into St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church on Price Street in East Germantown, people are sitting outside enjoying the fresh air. Once inside, folks are walking in and out of the dining hall, getting rid of full garbage bags, and bringing food out to guests.
Behind one doorway is where you will find Chef Altenor Vaval, preparing food and dispensing wisdom.
“Food is more about love than knowledge,” he said. “Knowing how to cook is great. But loving how to do it is more important.”
Al, as everyone calls him, is a native of Haiti. He began working as a chef for the soup kitchen run out of the St. Vincent’s parish three years ago. Now, he is also director of the dining hall.
The free meals that Al prepares are sponsored by Face to Face, a nonprofit organization that provides a wide range of services to low-income residents of Germantown, including meals served on Friday through Monday from noon to 1:45 p.m.
It’s about learning
Al says that working in a soup kitchen is about learning: learning the ingredients, learning the environment, learning the people, and learning what the people love.
“I am from a poor country so I understand when someone comes to me and says ‘I need food,’ “Al explained. “When someone needs food, that doesn’t mean I serve them poorly. We are supposed to respect the people we serve and serve them in a clean environment.”
Natural, not canned
Not only does Al make sure people are served properly, he tries to make sure the meals are as healthy as possible by using natural food rather than processed food. “The only time I use canned foods is if there is absolutely no fresh stuff,” he said.
Al says being in a soup kitchen is a challenge because 60 percent of the food comes from donation and he can’t trash it. Because he doesn’t know what is coming, he needs to know how to cook everything.
Learning from family
Al learned how to cook from his grandmother. He says that when he was younger, his siblings would travel for vacation but he would stay with his grandmother and learn how to cook.
“We learn everything from family. Everything is about family. My grandmother didn’t go to school and most of the things you learn at school is the icing on the cake. But if you put your head on top of your shoulders you can say, ‘Wow, I can do that!’ School isn’t going to teach you how to caramelize an onion.”
When Al came to America, he saw that people eat a lot of meat and grease. So when he makes his meals, he uses more vegetables than meat. “When I started working here, I saw that they don’t use fresh fruits and vegetables. I think we are everything we eat so I tried to incorporate more fruits and vegetables.”
During the summer, Al gets leftover fruits and vegetables donated by farmers markets in Germantown. He’s also started to grow his own in a new community garden adjacent to the church. “I also thought if we can start a garden, we can incorporate it with the kitchen so we can have more vegetables for the people,” he said.
Currently, herbs are sprouting from the garden and planting has begun for summer vegetables.
Fans speak up
Al, who speaks both French and English, is adored by the regulars at the dining hall. “Al is wonderful and his meals are very tasty, especially his soups,” said one seven-year veteran of the kitchen crew. “He’s gotten more fresh fruits and vegetables than people know.”
Valerie Scott, a Germantown resident, used to help Al prep in the kitchen back in 2013. “He is a wonderful chef. He makes everything from scratch and never turns down a meal if asked to make one,” she said.
Scott wasn’t a soup person until she tried Al’s soup: “He tried to get me to eat squash soup, so I did and it was so good. It is great, especially in the winter.” She noted that Al treats his co-workers like family. “He is really about ‘doing,’ while we’re here on earth, to help others,” she said.
Robert Best has been helping out at the dining hall for two years. “Al’s ingenuity springs from what is given to him,” he said. “I am impressed with his creativity and nourishing way with things he may not know are coming. And the food is always nutritious and healthy.”
Growing with the garden
Children are Al’s biggest weakness. “When you put children together, they play together. They think about the moment,” he said. If everyone could have the mindset of children — and not worry about the past or the future — then society would be the better for it, he said.
Al has plans for the small area outside the church. He wants to create a smaller garden for children where they can grow their own vegetables and be able to connect with nature.
After studying law in Haiti, Al is currently back in school, taking criminal justice classes at Mercer Community College in New Jersey. He wants to return to Haiti to teach his people about personal transformation and social change.
“Everyone should be a god in their own way,” he said. “Not in the sense of praising you, but to become the creator of everything you do.”
Germantown Beat is a website produced by student journalists at La Salle University.