Where homeless can eat like the kings of New York

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The Independent US

The master chef Michael Ennes is in full creative tilt in his cramped kitchen beneath the Broadway Presbyterian Church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. His harried band of assistants is variously plugging the tops of 20 plump chickens with apple quarters, chopping fresh sticks of celery and moulding herbed meat balls.

This was mid-morning yesterday and the birds are the main attraction on the lunchtime menu, each sat upright on a can filled with fresh fennel and broth. "It's called posted chicken," says Ennes; they stay moist thanks to simultaneous roasting and poaching. The meatballs are for Italian wedding soup.

There is so much to do in so little time that some of the preparation work has spilt out into the basement dining room. Ennes, beads of sweat showing beneath a floppy chef's cap and matching black neck scarf, darts back and forth to make sure his instructions are being minutely followed. Never mind that some of his customers are already at their tables.

"George Bush has eaten here," he jokes while removing a tray of perfectly browned roasted potatoes from the professional oven. "So has Jesus Christ, George Washington and other luminaries." For a man who once cooked at restaurants in South Beach in Miami and the Florida Keys before running his own restaurant for a few years in the East Village of Manhattan, Ennes needs to keep a sense of proportion at his new post. His food might still qualify for a star-rating but stars do not eat it.

We are, in fact, in one of roughly 420 soup kitchens in New York that fill the stomachs of about 260,000 homeless or otherwise dispossessed souls. But as anyone who has ever snagged a seat at one of his tables can attest, this is a soup kitchen with culinary aspirations far beyond any other in the city.

Three days a week Ennes, 55, channels his culinary urges into creating menus for his customers, as he calls them, which are miracles of invention. While his peers at the other soup kitchens may be serving the usual charity fare of ravioli, vegetables from cans and turkey patties, he performs magic to serve meals that, in truth, even Mr Bush might not need to sniff at.

He does it by harnessing his savvy as a top-flight chef to the ingredients that come to him from food charity programmes such as City Harvest and the Food Bank for New York. They deliver such staples as the chickens and vegetables as well as leftovers from some of Manhattan's finest restaurants. He gets day-old bread from Le Bernardin. Last week octopus showed up.

Thus, the menu yesterday, pinned to the larder door lest anyone forget what they are mean to be preparing, featured a desert called tower of power parfait. He will make it from vanilla puddings and scraps of half-served cakes from restaurants.

"It's not a question of fancy food," he insists, "it's a matter of giving people real food with real nutrition. The difference between canned vegetables and real vegetables is work". And for the homeless of this neighbourhood he is prepared to do it. "I am taking nothing away from the art of high cuisine in good restaurants, but here I feel like am making a difference in peoples lives."

They come from far and wide. Hakim Rasheed, 58, who gingerly navigates the narrow basement steps at noon with a cane after journeying by bus from the Bronx, concedes that this soup kitchen, "is the best in the city," and his face lights up when he hears that it's posted chicken today. He is, he admits, "a picky eater". What he was really hoping for, however, was steak.

For that, he will have to come back tomorrow, when Ennes will be serving Christmas lunch. (He is closed on Monday). But, rest assured, it will not be any old steak, but barbecued bison steak. Even Le Bernardin might not be able to compete with that.

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