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Curry-seasoned haddock (for vegetarians, tofu) is perched on steamed greens in a balsamic vinaigrette, the greens in turn are set on a puree of Jerusalem artichokes and roasted garlic. The fish is garnished with sauteed baby turnips and Swiss chard stems. Accompanying the dish is quinoa pilaf with winter squash and Chinese long beans.
This is lunch at the Women’s Lunch Place, a day shelter for poor and homeless women, located in the basement of the Church of the Covenant on Newbury Street. Here, restaurant-quality food is served, free of charge, six days a week to all women (and their children) who want it. Many of the guests are among the city’s neediest, the chronic homeless; others are simply down on their luck. Besides free lunch and breakfast, there is help with legal and housing issues, financial assistance, a wellness program, hot showers, a nap room, even art classes. “We’re here to provide a variety of services to women in an atmosphere of dignity and respect,’’ explains Lauren Reilly, director of development.
But the heart of the Women’s Lunch Place is lunch, and the heart of the kitchen is Josh Birdsall. The bearded, ponytailed, soft-spoken chef has been on the job since August, and by all accounts, he treats his dishes with the same care and respect as the shelter does its guests. By 11 a.m., the kitchen is humming. Volunteers chop, prep, and cook under the watchful supervision of Birdsall, 27, who seems to be everywhere at once. The chef came here after stints at Whole Foods and Craigie Street Bistrot. He had worked in restaurants throughout college (his degree is in literature).
But Birdsall is committed to serving as many varieties of protein, grains, fruits, and vegetables as possible. Some — such as today’s quinoa — may be unfamiliar to the guests. “First they say, ‘What’s ki-no-ah?’ Then they try it,’’ he says. And, he admits, “Some things flop. They don’t like the way I cook collard greens, because they want them stewed to death.’’ Undaunted, he keeps introducing new foods. He rarely repeats a menu, and without exception, guests say they appreciate the increased variety and quality he’s brought in.
This kind of work, he says, brings its unique satisfaction. “I get to do food for people who really need it. There’s no promises, no pretensions,’’ he says. “Just good, simple, honest food — and it feeds people beyond just filling their bellies.’’