“When people don’t agree with me, I keep asking until they do. [In the meantime,] I widen my circle.”
So said People Serving People CEO Jim Minor in his quest for donations at a benefit dinner Tuesday night.
From the high school spaghetti dinner fundraiser to an elegant charity event, every benefit dinner (and, face it, there are many) has its merits. Most involve visiting a restaurant or event hall, dining perhaps more extravagantly than you might have done otherwise, and networking with a roomful of well-intentioned people with expendable income who want to support a good cause. One local organization does its dinners differently — but, then again, it does most things differently.
People Serving People isn’t just a homeless shelter; it’s an all-in-one center for homeless families to stay and get their lives back on track. The center serves about 100 families per night, many of which are single-parent households facing mental health problems or domestic abuse, and the families receive much more than a room in which to sleep and a meal to eat. Renovated in 2002, the Portland Avenue shelter houses 21 collaborative programs under one roof, including Minneapolis Public Schools, an on-site Hennepin County clinic, and the University of Minnesota. Kids are about 60 percent of the shelter’s guests and are offered curriculum-based daycare, on-site preschool, transportation to their “home school” anywhere in Hennepin County, tutoring, counseling, after-school programs, and access to a technology center; adults can work with employment counselors and participate in 13-week on-site culinary or facility job-training programs. Over the course of the 46-day average stay, both parents and children are offered a chance to get off the street and develop the skills to stay employed.
Enter the dinners, which began six years ago. Nearly every month, the center partners with a local chef to draw in food lovers, give them a tour of the facility, and provide a multi-course meal cooked in the site’s industrial kitchen. Tuesday night’s event featured The Barbary Fig‘s Chef Brahim Hadj-Moussa (above), who invited us into the kitchen following a short cocktail hour to introduce himself and the Southern French / Mediterranean food he had prepared.
The meal began with hummus and french bread. Lighter on the olive oil than most, this hummus had a slightly drier texture and tasted of pungent garlic, tempered by nutty black and white sesame seeds. This course was followed with a small square of polenta topped in an aromatic roasted red pepper vinaigrette, the tangy scent of which wafted to our noses upon being served.
Spanakopita, the traditional Greek spinach dish, was served in a thin layer wrapped in crispy phyllo and topped with a slightly sweet tomato mixture. The spanakopita’s deeply spiced flavor played off the sweetness of the tomatoes — it had enough contrast and a slightly offbeat, crave-inducing flavor. A subsequent course of fruit-flecked couscous salad, included to cleanse the palate, was loaded with a flavor reminiscent of a full-bodied curry.
The fifth course, comprising crab crepes with smoked salmon and roquefort, represented a shift to the south of France. The rich, creamy filling packed a concentrated salmon punch; the thin, eggy crepe soothed the strong flavor of the salmon-roquefort combination. Slightly crunchy edges were the result of one chef cooking 30 to 40 portions simultaneously.
The Barbary Fig’s signature North African bread pudding made an appearance at the close of the meal, served this time with vanilla ice cream instead of cream. The bread pudding, seasoned with a mix of spices (including cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves) at once addictive and intriguing, provided the perfect blend of crunchy and yielding texture to make each bite better than the last.
Before ending the meal, CEO Jim Minor provided some closing remarks, urging diners to give time or money according to their ability. Though the program receives some government funding, Minor made clear that the vast majority of the organization’s $7 million budget derives from private donations. Each chef in the Chefs for Change program donates his / her time, and guests are expected to spread the word and consider donating their time in turn.
Children who are constantly mobile — those who don’t have a house to come home to — tend to be about two years behind their peers on the learning curve. People Serving People seeks to improve these circumstances — both the children’s learning, and their mobility — and they seem to be on track. If you’re interested in learning about their work first-hand, sign up for an upcoming event, eat some world-class food, and see how you can help.
After all, in order to continue to expand and succeed, the organization needs to expand its circle.
Monday, May 17 — Rick Kimmes of The Oceanaire (SOLD OUT)
Monday, July 19 — JD Fratzke of The Strip Club
Monday, August 16 — Culinary Arts Training Graduates
Monday, September 20 — Scott Pampuch of Corner Table
Monday, October 18 — Andre Smith of Seven Steakhouse
Tickets are $75 per person; contact Mary Ites at 612.277.0246 or firstname.lastname@example.org.