MILWAUKEE (AP) — Award-winning chef Justin Aprahamian and his staff decided that a hearty French cassoulet — a stew with meat and vegetables — was a good dish for his regulars on a December night.
These regulars weren't the 20 people who can fit in his upscale Sanford Restaurant near downtown Milwaukee, though. They were 86 men staying at Milwaukee's largest publicly funded homeless shelter, the Guest House.
"The men are so appreciative, that someone would take time out of their day and prepare this nice, quality meal," said Cindy Krahenbuhl, executive director of the Guest House, which also offers programs dealing with mental health, drug and alcohol issues.
A volunteer there who is also retired from the restaurant business, Dale Rhyan, came up with the idea about four years ago to approach restaurants for help after he noticed the men got only about a dozen meals a month — and those weren't particularly nutritious ones. The shelter has no budget for meals and relies completely on volunteers to make meals.
"So I thought, OK, this is by far the most important thing on the list, because food goes right to the brain," Rhyan said. "These guys need nutrition to get their lives back, and to be able to go out on the street, find work, and get their health back."
He turned to his friends in the restaurant business, and the response was remarkable.
"I would sometimes go home at night and find that I would be crying in the car because I was so overwhelmed, because I was not getting any rejections," Rhyan said.
With the restaurants involved and more community and faith-based volunteers, the meal program has gone from providing 40 percent of a month's dinners to about 90 percent. Other restaurant groups involved include the Bartolotta Restaurants and Black Shoe Hospitality, both of which own some of the best-reviewed restaurants in Milwaukee.
At Sanford, the staff cooks for the shelter once a month. Aprahamian, who won the James Beard Award in 2014 for the best chef in the Midwest, said they usually make food that travels easily, like stir-fry dishes, curries and pastas.
"We take a lot of pride in what we send over to the Guest House," Aprahamian said.
Other restaurants are known to give leftovers to shelters, but Aprahamian said everyone at his restaurant enjoys brainstorming and cooking.
"I think the focus and the dedication to giving them a great well-rounded meal comes through," he said.
That seemed evident, with plenty of "mmms" for the cassoulet and trips back for seconds.
"Oh, I really enjoyed it. I liked the way they cooked that food and the way they prepared it, too," said Billie Pollard, a 68-year-old recovering alcoholic who has been at the Guest House for five months.
Robert Howard, on the verge of leaving the shelter after having been off heroin for almost two years, says he'll carefully time his visits to see his caseworker.
"I know when the good meals come," the 50-year-old said with a laugh, "I'll be here."