By KATE LUDLOW
Sometimes, a run of bad luck can lead to some pretty great things. For Liberty Hill’s Chef Renee Morgan, what should have been a crisis ended up sparking a new career, and a new opportunity to give back to those around her through a non-profit organization, Chefalicious Hospitality.
“We work to use our culinary talents to care for the nutritional needs of food-challenged children in Williamson County, and we do that in a variety of different ways,” says Chef Renee.
Chefalicious Hospitality is an organization working to build a center for children to go on weekends, evenings and holidays, when their school’s free or reduced meals under the National School Lunch Program are not available.
“Some of these kids, when they are not in school, their options for receiving food become much more limited,” she said.
To raise money, Chefalicious Hospitality accepts donations, both corporate and private, but the main way is through catering and meal delivery. The organization is a full-service catering company, but the proceeds go to the non-profit.
“We operate just like any other catering company. We do cooking classes, or if you want to have a private chef come into your house for a special anniversary meal. We do weddings and corporate catering. The difference is that our profit goes directly to the nutritional care of children in Williamson County who are in needy situations,” says Chef Renee.
It’s a simple business model – hire a caterer as you normally would, and help an organization that works to educate and feed those in need.
“If you have an event,” says Chef Renee, “and you choose to use a caterer…say you are having a Christmas card group for the gals and you want to put out a nice display for them. All things being the same, why wouldn’t you make that decision, to pick the caterer that will use the money to help others?”
While some people wax poetically on the issues of poverty, it is a struggle with which Chef Renee and her family are all too familiar.
“It was 2008. My husband and I both had very successful businesses,” she said.
Her husband, John Morgan, owned a furniture delivery company, and Chef Renee owned an upscale ladies boutique in Georgetown.
“When the economy collapsed, everything changed. People weren’t in the market for new furniture, new houses, or new clothing. We lost everything,” she said. “John lost his business and I lost mine. We went from a 3,000-square-foot home to a 300-square-foot apartment. I needed to remake myself.”
Chef Renee had always had a passion for cooking and entertaining, so when her husband noted that if she had professional training as a chef, she would be “scary good,” Chef Renee took it seriously.
“I immediately went to Le Cordon Bleu (College of Culinary Arts). I knew if I was going to do it, I was going to do it with the best education I was able to get. I went in thinking there was no way this was going to happen. I had a very cavalier approach. I applied and thought ‘that’s the end of that.’”
Within one week of applying, Chef Renee got the call that financing for the school had come through, and that she would be able to start in one week.
“I was so excited, but I was also worried, because I knew that I would be taking on student loans. We had just lost houses and cars, so there was really nowhere to go but up. I do remember having many days where I would go to school and think, ‘Please let us cook something today, so that I can eat,’” she recalls.
“During this time, people came along who helped. We would come home to a bag of groceries on the porch, or friends would invite us to dinner and say they had extra food. I knew they didn’t have extra food. Those experiences change you. It made me a more compassionate person,” said Chef Renee.
To combat the student loans, Chef Renee was determined to enter every cooking competition she could, in the hopes that any prize money would save her from the nearly $43,000 in debt she was taking on.
“I found a mentorship, someone to guide me through this, and I threw myself into it,” she said.
It paid off. Chef Renee won the Stephan Pyles Culinary Scholarship, among others, and was able to pay off the student loan debt, and also walked away with $5,000 from her school.
“Because of that, I was able to do things that were beyond school. I was able to work with (chefs) Wolfgang Puck, Gordon Ramsey, so many great names. I was able to gain lots of knowledge beyond the average culinary education. But I knew I wasn’t going to be schlepping potatoes in a kitchen for $8 an hour at my age.
“I had been the corporate route, I was at a point where I wanted to make a difference. I wanted something to make me feel good,” she said.
After culinary school, Chef Renee landed an internship with “America’s Test Kitchen” – the most-watched cooking show on public television. She traveled to Boston to work in the test kitchens where recipes were deconstructed and examined to figure out the perfect way to cook most any food. While there, she had an epiphany.
“I rode the subway a lot and there were these signs I would pass by every day. They promoted a center where any kid under the age of 18 could go and get a hot meal, regardless of income. I thought to myself, ‘Why couldn’t we do that in Williamson County?’ It was sponsored by the USDA (United State Department of Agriculture). I did some counseling with the editors at Test Kitchen, and they urged me to use my culinary talents in Williamson County. I believe charity begins at home.
“There are lots of programs like this in Travis County. In Williamson County, we’re largely rural, it’s hard to get resources, it’s harder to get to those resources that are there,” says Chef Renee.
“Our goals are simple. One to provide a place for kids to get a hot meal. Two, to take part in an educational issue that is dependent upon economic circumstances. Their parents, they work hard, they’re working their butts off. It is easier to go through the dollar menu than try to figure out what you can buy with your meager food stamps,” she said.
“The average family of four in Williamson County that receives food stamps, receives $150 or less per month,” says Chef Renee. “That’s not enough for a week, let alone a month.”
Recipients of the Texas Lone Star Card are given a debit card that works for food purchases at grocery stores, gas stations, and restaurants. With this in mind, Chefalicious Hospitality also offers grocery store tours.
“We take the parents to the grocery store, and we show them how to stretch their dollar. We show them the marketing tricks that make them think they’re buying healthy things, and we show them how to shop in a healthy way. We focus on the outer perimeter of the store, where the fresh vegetables are, the meats, the real ingredients. We help them avoid the interior of the store, where the processed foods, the Twinkies and Ho Ho’s are,” says Chef Renee.
At the end of the tour, each family participates in a food challenge, where they are given a $10 gift card, and have to come up with a healthy meal to feed their family.
“One lady did a really creative thing, she did breakfast tacos. She used whole wheat tortillas, and Egg Beaters, along with black beans, so it was a more filling protein. She added salsa and onions. I think she spent about $8.85.”
The organization is also working to be able to gift families a home garden.
“We have partnered with some master gardeners to do this. It won’t be too big to maintain, just a small raised bed plot,” she said. “We teach them that they can use their food stamp money towards seeds, and show them how to harvest the seeds from the vegetables that have come in for next year. Once the vegetables come in, we teach them how to preserve the harvest, make spaghetti sauce and tomato jams for the winter,’” says Chef Renee.
An added educational component includes cooking classes for children and parents to encourage healthy eating and a healthy lifestyle.
“If you want children to eat healthy, it starts with getting them involved in the kitchen,” said Chef Renee. “The truth is that if they make it, they will eat it. They are more inclined to eat a salad they help prepare than they are broccoli or something you set in front of them and tell them to eat it.”
While Chefalicious Hospitality searches for a home, the organization faces the problems that all non-profits face.
“There is always more need than funds. We’re trying to build the infrastructure for our meal center. We’re negotiating on a building right now, and we’re trying to get to the supplies to build a kitchen in it. Right now, we’re borrowing licensed commercial kitchens. I want one place where the kids know where to go and the parents know where to go,” says Chef Renee.
So far, Chef Renee has received donations that will make a difference.
“We’ve received a washer and dryer, table bases, a three-compartment sink, just some amazing stuff. We’re still looking for things. A stove would be nice,” she said.
In addition to event catering, Chefalicious Hospitality offers meal delivery. And prior to the holidays, orders are being accepted for desserts.
“They are delicious, and (having them made for you) takes the load off when you have all your family coming in,” says Chef Renee.
For more information on Chefalicious Hospitality or to make a donation, visit www.chefalicioushospitality.com.