“Hands-on” is the byword at Midway Community Kitchen. And that refers to more than just the cooking classes.
If you sign up for a class in making vegan Latin American food or canning vegetables, be prepared to get in the kitchen and start cooking. No sitting back with a glass of wine while waiting for a plate of food to appear in front of you. The goal is to send people home having learned something and met new friends.
Owner Kathy Gunn has put the hands-on idea into her business, too. After years working in the kitchen at such Triangle favorites as Magnolia Grill and Carolina Inn, she could have continued in the restaurant world. Instead, she started Midway Community Kitchen in a former convenience store this past January. She wants to make a difference directly – a center not just for learning about cooking good food, but also for supporting neighborhoods where residents lack the means or skills to prepare healthy meals and pushing for change in how children eat. And to foster community by bringing people together to have a good time over good food.
Gunn talks a lot about creating community on a number of levels. That’s one reason why nobody sits on their hands during classes, most of which are participatory, not demos.
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“People come in and make the dishes. It’s exciting to see people who don’t know each other come in, drink some wine, start cooking and talk, all levels of skill,” Gunn says. “Then they eat together.”
There’s a lot of interaction in the popular monthly Cook Book Club, which usually draws about a dozen people. Gunn selects a cookbook to focus on and members prepare a meal from it while talking about the book. Past books featured include “Prune” by Gabrielle Hamilton and “Jerusalem” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. The Aug. 24 book is “Sara Foster’s Southern Kitchen” by Sara Foster, who owns Foster’s Market in Durham. Purchasing the book is not required, Gunn says, but Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill offers a discount for attendees. To speed things along, Gunn preps some ingredients but members prepare the dishes together.
The space can seat 34, but she keeps the classes to around 20 so that everyone can see what’s happening and easily participate.
The kitchen also hosts dinner events such as a “Farmer-Chef Mashup” with Al Bowers of Al’s Burger Shack and Alex Hitt of Peregrine Farm, a fish fry with Locals Seafood and Haw River Farmhouse Ales, pop-up dinners and pop-up markets, and Midway is a CSA pickup point. Snap Pea Catering rented the 1,100-square-foot building for a series of 12 dinners featuring Thai street food and sold out the space each time, Gunn says. Restaurants or businesses that need extra commercial space can rent the certified kitchen.
Gunn is willing to try just about anything. She has a big goal for Midway Community Kitchen: that everyone, regardless of income or ability, should learn how to improve what and how they eat, and come together around food. The business is not a nonprofit; Gunn describes what she’s doing as social entrepreneurship.
“Basically, how you can help people in the community and still make a profit,” she says. “I didn’t want to be a nonprofit with a board and so forth.”
Social entrepreneurship is not a new idea, but it has gained interest since the ’90s when the concept began being studied and businesses began practicing it to connect with each other, says Matthew T.A. Nash, managing director for social innovation and entrepreneurship at the Duke Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative in the Fuqua School of Business.
“Social entrepreneurs adopt a mission to create and sustain social value. They relentlessly pursue opportunities to serve this mission, while continuously adapting and learning. Social entrepreneurs act boldly, not constrained by resources currently in hand. They hold themselves accountable for achieving the social mission and use resources wisely,” Nash says.
The term can apply to for-profit or nonprofit, faith-based or secular businesses, or hybrids of those, he says. Innovation in the goal of addressing a social problem is the important aspect. The company that dedicates a portion of its profits to a social cause, while commendable, is not the same.
It’s exciting to see people who don’t know each other come in, drink some wine, start cooking and talk, all levels of skill.Then they eat together.
Midway Community Kitchen Owner Kathy Gunn
Gunn plans that the income-producing parts of Midway – paid events and classes, and rental of the space – along with a few grants, support her goal of helping lower income people gain the skills and knowledge they need to prepare healthful, fresh food at home.
Gunn left the food world in 2001 because “it had gotten too corporate for me,” she says, then worked with her husband’s construction company.
In 2007, she got involved with trying to improve the nutritional quality of the food in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools. “I saw the school lunches, and it was mostly poor kids eating these lunches with processed food, and it bummed me out,” she says.
She and other parents worked with the superintendent to get changes made. “The goal was to have people actually cooking in school kitchens again, but the kitchens are so out of date. But they are getting better food,” Gunn says.
In the process, she realized that many lower-income kids weren’t learning how to prepare healthy food at home because, in many cases, their parents lacked the knowledge. Combine that need with the idea of creating community, and Midway was born.
To better identify the need, she got to know the neighborhood around Rosemary Street where Midway is located. It’s a transitional area at the edge of campus life and near the historically African-American Northside neighborhood.
“I wanted to be in an urban neighborhood in the center of things, and I wanted to get to know the neighborhood and what it needs,” she said.
St. Joseph CME Church is across the street, with a center that offers a food bank called Heavenly Groceries. The organizers told Gunn that people receiving fresh food often said that they lacked the equipment to prepare it. So Gunn organized a pots and pans collection drive last month. She put out the call on Midway’s Facebook page and newsletter list.
“I made biscuits and coffee one Saturday morning and asked people to bring pots and pans, anything that people could use in the kitchen,” Gunn says.
She received more than a dozen boxes of utensils, baking dishes, frying pans and food storage containers.
She began working with The Jackson Center at the church on offering free basic cooking classes and healthy eating classes, including such things as how to reduce sugar in the diet, along with free knife skills classes. Students from a UNC-Chapel Hill nutrition program helped with the seven-week nutrition classes. Now she’s talking with nonprofits in Chapel Hill about job skills training for high school students who aren’t planning to go to college.
Gunn intends for everyone to have a place at Midway’s table, whether they want to learn the basics or have a fun evening making spring rolls with new friends. “I’m in this for the long hau,l and I want to make a difference,” she says.
Moose is a Raleigh cookbook author and former News & Observer food editor. Reach her at debbiemoose.com.