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Field of Greens

Redwood Empire Food Bank chef Don Nolan makes meals for the masses

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CREATIVE COOK  Chef Don Nolan turns a changing lineup of donated ingredients - into quality meals for thousands of Sonoma County residents.
  • CREATIVE COOK Chef Don Nolan turns a changing lineup of donated ingredients into quality meals for thousands of Sonoma County residents.

If Don Nolan's job was a reality TV pitch, it might go like this: "Chef, your challenge is to create a healthful, high-quality entrée out of a random supply of unwanted food and crank out 500 to 600 meals while managing a rotating cast of 70 volunteers with varying degrees of cooking experience."

And the prize is this: labor out of the limelight, five days a week, in the depths of a labyrinthine food bank. Nolan accepts.

The Kitchen Collective chef-prepared meal program was already up and running when the Redwood Empire Food Bank (REFB) launched its Station 3990 distributions in response to the North Bay fires. One among the Food Bank's many programs serving low-income seniors and families, as well as fire victims currently, the program grew out of a long and deliberate process that began when the food bank moved into a vast new complex in north Santa Rosa.

The commercial kitchen was built on the premise that "if you build it, they will come," says REFB chief executive officer David Goodman. At first, it was seldom used. "But one of the really cool things about the culture of the organization," says Goodman, "is everybody was OK with that. We allowed ourselves time to figure out what we wanted to do with it."

The REFB distributes $40 million worth of food every year, most of it donated by individuals, farms, food processors and retail and wholesale groceries. What makes Kitchen Collective inspiring, Goodman says, is that it turns discarded food into something more meaningful—both for the recipient and the organization. "As a hunger-relief worker, and specifically as a food banker, that's a home run."

On a recent morning, Nolan shows off some of the donations he's got to work with, while keeping a team of five volunteers on task with gentle instructions. If this was reality TV, he'd possibly be the most amiable, low-key celebrity chef in reality TV history. Thankfully, he's no Gordon Ramsay.

"Here, we've got some gluten-free baking mix we're going to make biscuits with," Nolan says, noting that while Kitchen Collective doesn't generally make special diets, everything here is vegetarian.

Several volunteers roll dough and cut biscuits, while others help Nolan prepare kale saag, a riff on the creamy spinach Indian dish. This good-natured team has been helping out, two or three hours a week, for over a year. "It's part of their routine," says Nolan. "A lot say, 'It's like therapy for me.'"

Normally, saag would be made with spinach and paneer, but kale is what the farm sent this week. The cottage cheese, in a funny parallel, was donated by Guy's Grocery Games, a Food Network show in which contestants "shop" for ingredients under time pressure.

Nolan's shopping spree starts on the warehouse floor, where employees of a South Bay company are spending the day unpacking donations as a team-building exercise. Around the corner, Nolan pauses by a crate of locally grown mushrooms—looks like something he might use.

A freezer the size of a semi truck holds entrées from the previous day or so, each labeled with ingredients and sealed with plastic in a microwavable carton.

Back in the kitchen, Nolan's volunteers have sautéed the kale with ginger and garlic until it's bright green and aromatic. The chef blends it in batches with the cheese until he's happy with the texture, and offers a spoonful.

It's pretty good, but it'd probably be even better served with the Indian flatbread, naan. Having already met that challenge, without pause Nolan reaches into the refrigerator and presents a tray of prepared naan. "These are whole wheat, too!"

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