Chef Bill Fuller, Big Burrito

This year, 2015, is filled with some big anniversaries for me. I will attend my 30 year high school reunion (probably) to see some old friends before we really become OLD friends. This spring we celebrate Kaya’s twentieth birthday with a week-long celebration leading up to the biggest KayaFest ever. Wrapped in this anniversary is my own 20th year as part of big Burrito. I joined up as Sous Chef to open Kaya in 1995. This fall also marks the twentieth anniversary of my first Executive Chef job, as opening Chef of Casbah. And, of course, 2015 marks the twentieth anniversary of meeting a skinny, sassy little blond bartender named Mary, probably the biggest anniversary of all.

Celebrations of these milestones will come throughout the year. I envision upcoming monthly columns filled with stories of the good old days. But for now, I want to share the anniversary of an another event important to me. This year is the 20th annual Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank fundraiser, the Empty Bowls benefit. Fighting hunger is important to me.

As I have written about before I grew up in a food-insecure household. What does that mean? That means we sometimes didn’t have enough food. It doesn’t mean that nobody wanted to eat the particular style of salami in the lunchmeat drawer. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t like the whole wheat bread and wanted white. It means that sometimes we had no food, and no money to get food.

When my parents divorced, we went from being part of a poor, rural extended family that relied on growing, canning, hunting, and freezing food to one that had to manage on my mother’s one low paying full-time job and part-time waitress jobs to pay the bills. Wages in Jefferson County as they are, one can be hard-pressed to provide enough to feed three preteen and teenage kids. We lived paycheck to paycheck in a very real way. Grocery day, every other Friday, felt like a small Christmas. We’d have milk, juice (the discount stuff), canned goods in the cupboard, cereal, eggs, and bread. On grocery day, my mother bought a single bottle of soda pop and a large Riverside sub. We’d unwrap the huge sub (probably an 18” in retrospect) cut it into 4 chunks, divvy up the soda exactly, and have our Friday banquet in front of the TV.

But as the days passed, the food would dwindle. The good cereal went first. By the second week we were left with only No Brand Name puffed wheat. The canned goods went as well, soups and Spaghetti-o’s snatched up quickly and hidden in closets. We worked down to grilled cheese sandwiches, eggs for dinner, finally cereal for dinner. Sometimes no dinner. The second Thursday was the worst.

Throughout this era, we received help. We got free lunch tokens, white plastic disks of embarrassment, that we palmed quickly to the lunchroom cashiers. We got food stamps and the shame that went with them. And for a stretch, at the very beginning of our lives as a new, changed, broken family unit, we received occasional boxes from the local food bank. I’m not sure from whom the boxes came exactly, whether a church, the Salvation Army, or some other community group, but they filled the gaps and filled our stomachs when we had nothing. Sure the bread was stale and of course there were way more cans of green beans than peaches, but the boxes got dinner on the table.

Eventually, we stopped getting assistance. My mother was able to improve her lot in life, getting a better position in the hospital for a little better pay. My siblings and I acquired paper routes then part-time jobs that afforded us the ability to snub the lunch tokens at least, and to buy frozen pizzas and Mountain Dew in the juicy Christmas Tip Time. We moved on to become productive, independent members of society. But for that time, donated food helped keep us fed.

Professionally, I feed people. I make a living at it, and feel like I have been pretty successful. Barring tragedy, my children will never worry about from where their next meals might come. Hopefully, they can build upon what that skinny blonde bartender and I have built for them and they will provide a food secure life for their kids. But I always remember that here are many people who can’t afford to dine at Mad Mex, much less Umi or Eleven. There are people that live in our city, in our neighborhoods, that can’t put dinner in front of their kids tonight. For some of them, they are going through a tough patch. For some of them, I understand that their lives will possibly never change and that they will manage hunger and their children’s hunger forever. I have always known that it is my responsibility to help feed these people, to pay forward what was given to me and my family. And it is for this reason that I offer my support to projects and organizations that work to thwart hunger.

For 20 years, the Empty Bowls benefit has been a primary revenue-generating event for Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and Just Harvest. We (big Burrito) have been involved for as long as I can remember. Every year we fill buckets of soup for the Food Bank to collect and dispense at Empty Bowls. Empty Bowls is a great event. Each participant is provided a bowl and stands in a soup line to be fed soup and bread. Everyone eats at communal tables. The soups are brothy or hearty, nice and hot, and are ladled by smiling celebrity volunteers from around the region who donate their Sunday afternoon as Soup Slingers. At the end of the event, you keep the bowl and head home, maybe making some bids on the silent auction items on the way out. Hopefully, you consider the plight of your fellow human and wish them a full belly.

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Come on out to eat some delicious soups and support the hungry people of our region Sunday afternoon, March 29, at Rodef Shalom. I’ll be there, as will some of the soups below, and we will all work hard to feed our brothers and sisters.

Buy tickets to join Bill and other neighbors at this year’s Empty Bowls!

Watch Bill and Ken Regal from Just Harvest talk Empty Bowls on Comcast Newsmakers.

Join the #EmptyBowlsPGH facebook event.

This post is written by Bill Fuller, big Burrito Corporate Chef.  The story was previously published in big Burrito’s March 2015 online newsletter, under the title Fuller Bowls.