Charitable Collaboration Educates with Demonstration Kitchen

HILLSIDE, NJ — Meara Nigro and Karen Veltri want kitchen and bath designers to know that it is truly better to give than receive.

In fact, the pair feels so strongly in this regard that they’ve pooled their resources together to establish a charitable demonstration kitchen for Community FoodBank of New Jersey.

“The demo kitchen will enable our training programs to include exhibition cooking for aspiring chefs, as well as help the Community FoodBank’s staff nutrionist more effectively address health and nutrition issues among New Jersey’s poor,” explains Nigro, who’s the FoodBank’s director of communications.

According to Nigro, the FoodBank teamed with Veltri, who’s the v.p./business development for Morris Plains, NJ-based CKC Design Center, LLC, in order to create the demonstration kitchen at the FoodBank’s 280,000-sq.-ft facility, here.

The pair tapped chefs James and Nancy Sheridan Laird, owners of Chatham, NJ-based Restaurant Serenade, to perform cooking demos at the kitchen.

But what truly sets this charitable collaboration apart is that it gives the gift of education, and not simply the gift of food.

This type of charity is nothing new for Nigro, whose organization is a member of a nationwide network of food banks called “America’s Second Harvest.” In fact, the FoodBank runs a free food service training program for people in need of marketable skills, among a slew of other charitable programs.

For instance, it also coordinates the “Kid’s Café,” where free, hot evening meals are provided to about 400 low-income children in existing after-school programs located in some of New Jersey’s poorest towns.

Helping Hand
It was at one of the FoodBank’s charitable events that the idea for this new demonstration kitchen was born. CKC’s Veltri attended the fundraising event last spring at the organization’s facility, and says she was moved by what she saw.

“During that evening, we were so impressed by the work of the FoodBank and their existing programs that we felt we wanted to make a contribution that would be ongoing,” she recalls. “Fortunately, we were in a position to suggest building a teaching/demonstration kitchen in addition to donating and installing the cabinetry for two of their Kid’s Cafés.”

Veltri brought the idea to Nigro and the FoodBank, and they teamed up right away to make this happen. For CKC Design Center’s part, the firm donated all of the design work, reports Veltri.

The firm was also able to get the majority of the products and materials for the kitchen donated for the demonstration kitchen.

“It’s amazing how readily people step up and join in,” Veltri remarks. “For instance, cabinet, appliance, granite, and plumbing fixtures manufacturers all joined in with us and donated product – [even the tile work was donated].”

She mentions that among the manufacturers that donated products were Gaggenau, Thermador, Frigidaire and Kohler Co.

Additionally, the firm hired an artist to decorate the kitchen walls in Venetian plaster, and as sent in volunteers to help paint the rest of the walls in the Foodbank’s “Community Room,” Veltri further notes.

Perfect Plan
According to Nigro, the new demonstration kitchen is now an integral part of the organization’s already substantial stable of charitable programs, and facility itself. “We already had a large commercial kitchen at one end of the warehouse. This is where the Food Service Training Academy students do most of their course work and turn a lot of donated product into nutritious meals for needy people,” explains Nigro. “But this commercial kitchen was not suitable for doing demonstration cooking for the people who prepare the meals at soup kitchens, and shelters, because there wasn’t room for observers.”

Nigro continues: “We were very fortunate in that we had a very large space to accommodate some interesting design aspects in this new demonstration kitchen, and we wanted it be completely functional and not overwhelmingly grandiose.”

Therefore, Veltri points out that the 16'Lx8'D island played a crucial role in the layout of the kitchen.

“We needed the island to accommodate the students, and we needed to have the functional side of the island contained on one side, facing into what is considered the general meeting room,” she describes.

As a result, adds Veltri, the island gave the FoodBank the ability to use the kitchen not only for the FoodService Training Academy, but also utilize the space for business meetings, and fundraising opportunities. To accomplish this, Veltri began at the back wall, locating the prep sink behind the island and across from the cooktop.

“This allows for the ingredients to be lined up so they are visible to the spectator students around the island,” she explains.

She then installed an additional sink in the island, next to the dishwasher, as well as a Kohler Co. deck-mounted pot filler.

Design Diet
With the design and building of the new demo kitchen, the Community FoodBank is now able to expand its focus. In fact, according to Nigro, it enables the organization to place emphasis on the advancement of nutritional education – for children and adults.

“Our staff nutritionist, Beth Hagen, is looking forward to bringing children from our Kid’s Cafés over here, so she can do some child-friendly cooking projects. This will enhance their nutrition education lessons,” Nigro reports.

She explains that, quite often, these children have to fend for themselves over the weekend when their parents work, so “it will be useful for them if they know how to cook a few nutritional meals for themselves and their siblings.”

Likewise, Nigro notes that adult education classes will be offered, as well, and will be geared toward the people who work in soup kitchens, shelters, senior meal programs and day care centers.

However, she quickly adds: “It doesn’t have to be a kitchen used strictly for cooking demonstrations. A charity might simply need a good working kitchen instead of a hodgepodge of cast-off appliances.”

Indeed, Veltri points out that the demo kitchen’s on-staff chefs, Paul Kapner and James Bulger, are now fully equipped with two Thermador convection ovens, a Gaggenau cooktop with six cooking zones and locking surface, microwave, dishwasher and refrigerator.

The pair of chefs will also use the demo kitchen “to train their students in à la carte meal preparation,” notes Nigro.

Lasting Benefits
This huge donation of time, product and design does have some benefits for CKC, as well.

“The demo kitchen is also an opportunity to take clients out of the showroom environment to see our work in a much different setting. In that sense, the FoodBank demo kitchen acts as a secondary showroom for our firm,” indicates Veltri, who also notes that the firm “recently opened a showroom in the very upscale Mall at Short Hills [NJ].”

With that in mind, Veltri offers an invitation to fellow kitchen/bath designers: “Designers can feel free to bring their clients to the FoodBank for a tour of not only the kitchen, but of the entire warehouse. This is a chance to raise awareness of the real need that exists all around us!”

“This was also a chance for CKC to introduce themselves to many affluent supporters of the FoodBank,” adds Nigro.

Building on that point, Veltri points out that “quite often, consumers like to know that the companies they do business with have a social conscience. This is a marketing approach that design firms might want to try, if they haven’t already done so.”

Indeed, Nigro feels that not only can charitable efforts such as the FoodBank’s demonstration kitchen lead to greater exposure for a kitchen and bath design firm, but they can also simply make them feel good about giving back to the community.

“I hope that design professionals consider their local charitable programs and start doing some exploration, because [many designers will find that] no matter how affluent a community may appear, there are definitely areas in need,” she states.

In regard to CKC Design Center’s contribution, Nigro adds: “We hope people who attended the [demo kitchen’s grand opening party held in January] will remember CKC Design Center when they are ready to renovate their own kitchens or baths.”

She concludes: “[Designers should remember that] the opportunity to donate can give back much more than you expect!”