A Moveable Feast

Issue: 
October 2011

“We’re gonna give you the futuristic tour!” announces Benjamin Surmi, as he and his business partner Jenny Vaughn Harrison lead me through a sprawling, disused commercial kitchen in a derelict hospital off Gallatin Road. “Desperately needs to be cleaned,” adds Harrison, smiling, her brown eyes alighting on grimy ovens, stoves, hanging pots, and a massive vent hood.

The ebullient Surmi waves his arms theatrically as he exhorts me to imagine this fusty, dun-colored kitchen as the pair envisions it: alive with laughter, delicious aromas, free-range stocks aboil and local onions asizzle.

Harrison’s girlish laugh rings out as he performs, her still-waters-run-deep sensibility a counterpoint to Surmi’s rollicking enthusiasm. “We’re going to double our prep table space,” she says, gesturing to a row of stainless-steel counters. “So we can have lots of people in the kitchen who are talking, cooking and having a great time.”

This fall, Harrison and Surmi will launch Feast Together, a nonprofit network of “neighborhood collaborative kitchens” that will offer Nashvillians from all over the economic spectrum a new, even revolutionary, way to get fed. By winter, the pair hopes, three Nashville kitchens — this one in East Nashville plus two more on West End and Edgehill — will rumble into life, creating nourishing meals, offering cooking classes and community potlucks, and assembling a following of people who want these things.

Each kitchen will host one or more chefs who work in symbiosis with a community of eaters. The chefs will offer weekly menus made from locally grown ingredients. Members pay a monthly fee to support their chef; that fee grants them access to prepared meals for delivery or pickup, at prices that reflect only the cost of ingredients. “We’re trying to make it very clear this is what you’re paying for the chefs to prepare this food for you, and this is what you’re paying the farmers,” explains Surmi.

The seed of Surmi’s social-justice-through-cooking idea germinated during his past life as an academic: while working with the elderly, he realized that most of them didn’t have access to healthy home-cooked meals. Harrison’s vision evolved in parallel, as she worked as a pastry and line chef. “I felt very conflicted,” Harrison says, “knowing, ‘This is only for people who can treat themselves.’” In her off hours, she volunteered at nonprofits and dreamed of merging the two worlds, of figuring out how to truly nourish the neediest among us, with delicious, lovingly prepared food.

The pair’s dreams converged about a year ago. When they met, both were working as private chefs, wondering how to make great home-cooked meals available to more than just an elite sliver of Nashville. They chatted excitedly about their ideas for a single hour, says Surmi, “And then we were like, ‘Let’s go, let’s do it!’”

The creative challenge was getting the labor costs down. “This type of food takes lots of hands actually peeling things and poaching things,” Surmi admits. “This is all fresh, right from the field, takes a lot of people working hard to make that happen.”

Their solution? To distribute the cost of a chef’s labor among 20-100 member families. And by strategically making trade-in-kind relationships with property owners, churches, nonprofits, and farmers, the two have found countless ways to slash overhead. For example, instead of shelling out rent, chefs will prepare meals for nonprofits affiliated with each kitchen — a program for teen moms, a mental health crisis unit.

Martha Stamps, formerly of Martha’s at the Plantation, has signed on as Feast Together’s first community chef, her kitchen at West End United Methodist Church. “I am incredibly excited to be a part of this project,” she says. “The structure of Feast Together will allow me to make this kind of food affordable to more and more people.”

For Harrison and Surmi, the highest hurdle will be finding ways to help needy families find their way into these communities. The two hope that as membership grows, they’ll be able to offer more subsidized and sliding-scale memberships for low-income families. And they’ll welcome volunteers who want to put in food-prep or dishwashing time in return for meals.

Feast Together, Harrison concedes, is a nervy experiment, one that defies easy definition. “People think of us as one of two things,” she muses. “One, they think we’re trying to be Mother Theresa and save the world, feed all the hungry people. Two, they think we are for the high-end Birkenstock crowd, people with a Gucci food bag.”

They are neither, Harrison smiles. “We’re creating an alternative — a very exciting food experience that people are willing to pay for because it’s worth the money. Trying to work on social justice in a very doable way, but also keep this not like a charity, nor just a high-end thing, but kind of bringing people together in a way most businesses don’t do.

“In the end, no one’s doing what we’re doing,” says the 29-year-old Harrison, whose blend of idealism and clear-eyed savvy may turn out to be just the right recipe for a food revolution. “So we’ll see!”
 
Pictured: Jenny Vaughn Harrison, Martha Stamps and Benjamin Surmi in the West End Community Church kitchen. Photo by Eric England.

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