Chef tackles hunger with bowls of soup

Posted at 11:00 AM, Nov 19, 2015
and last updated 2015-11-19 11:00:36-05

Talk about a second act – and a third.

If you’ve been following the food scene in Cincinnati in the past year, you may know that, in April of 2014, chef Suzy DeYoung stepped away from a 30-year successful stint as a caterer at La Petite Pierre of Madeira.

But she didn’t stop cooking. She decided to change her clientele – from the well-fed to the hungry.

And so La Soupe was cooked up.

Inspired in part by Tom’s Shoes, the venture initially was a for-profit social enterprise that offered a free bowl of soup to a food pantry or soup kitchen for every bowl DeYoung sold at the “roadside soup shack” she opened in Newtown.

The ingredients were largely “ugly food”  – produce that is perfectly good but not easy to sell because it’s bruised, or has spots, or it had reached its sell-by date but hadn’t yet reached its eat-by date. The ugly food was (and is) donated by Kroger in Madeira and Mariemont, local farmers, most of them organic, and bakeries. (DeYoung prefers the term “rescued” to “donated.”)

It was a beautiful concept, and it really took off. All kinds of volunteers, including chefs and farmers, have given their time, cooking, picking up produce, and delivering. DeYoung rented a second space – the old train depot in Madeira. A lot of soup was made – and served. Food waste and hunger had a new enemy in the Cincinnati area.

But by summertime 2015, DeYoung had decided a bowl for a bowl was not enough. It was time to scale up. She stepped away from the Madeira location because, she said, it took too much energy away from the project of donated soup. And she filed for nonprofit status, which was awarded just a few weeks ago.

“What I saw in my previous life in restaurant catering,” she said, “was a great amount of waste that is inevitable when you cater, and then seeing the amount of produce that gets thrown away – not even composted but put into landfills. And then Cincinnati being second behind Detroit in kids living in food-insecure homes. It was, like, somebody needs to try to connect these dots. So I decided to tackle it. That’s how I ended up where I am.”

Where she has ended up is with an octopus of an effort that we’ll just call La Soupe. It has evolved to include the kitchens of a number of farm-to-table and other chefs; cooking classes for kids at Oyler School; a growing food-delivery program that includes schools, where at-risk kids get “Power Packs” – soup, bread, and fresh fruit – to take home; sustainable two-way relationships with local farmers; and the Newtown restaurant, or soup shack, where you can buy soup and accompaniments like croque monsieur sandwiches.

Now that La Soupe is nonprofit, proceeds from the restaurant go to support the venture, helping to purchase items that are not donated.

“We have Inter Parish ministries down the street from us in Newtown,” she said. “They’re our first go-to (to distribute soup). And then Madisonville Education and Assistance Center is usually our second. Today (the soup) ended up (at a) homeless shelter out in Batavia.”

Demand for the soup grew to where it could not all be made from DeYoung’s Newtown kitchen. So the chef has established a program she named the “Chef Bucket Brigade,” in which area chefs make soup in their restaurant kitchens.

Chefs who have been making soup every week include: Tod Kelly of Orchids at the Palm; Vitor Abreu of Vitor’s Bistro; Mike Florea of Maribelle’s; Jason Louda of Meatball Kitchen; the staff and students at Cincinnati State College’s culinary school; Arik Messerschmidt of Son of a Preacher Man; and Donny Hatton of Carlo & Johnny’s.

Servatii and Frieda’s bakery, among others, donate bread. DeYoung said she also received a donation of 50,000 soup containers.

Bones for stock are donated by organic farms, including Turner Farm and Green Acres. Chicken and meat in the soups are purchased and are organic.

It all started with Kroger in Madeira.

“I was blessed with getting to know Lynn Marmer from Kroger,” DeYoung said.

And how did DeYoung get to know Marmer, vice president for corporate affairs at the company?

“I stalked her,” she laughed, explaining that she sent emails and called, proposing that Kroger’s ugly food be rescued for soup. And she ended up with an ally who cut through the red tape and started a pipeline of donations.

“And then,” she said, “through Facebook, probably, Jungle Jim’s reached out and asked if we would rescue from them, and farmers started dropping off their excess food. Because I’m in Newtown and I’m kind of out in a rural area, it’s fairly convenient for a lot of the farmers. Even farmers from farm markets would stop in and bring me whatever they couldn’t sell.”

If ever there was a modern case of Stone Soup, this was it. And, DeYoung pointed out, it’s not just hunger that can be attacked with a bowl of soup. Through outreach in schools, she hopes to teach kids to cook healthy food and let them know that Cincinnati kitchens need workers.

Asked if the logistics of running La Soupe were manageable, DeYoung said her experience in catering prepared her for the challenge.

“I think the fact that I was a caterer for 30 years and you have multiple events going, and you’re juggling a lot of different balls in the air – I say to myself, it’s just a different clientele,” she said.

As a chef, she said she enjoys the challenge of making delicious food with whatever happens to be available, which, of course, is the central principal of farm-to-table cuisine.

“It’s like playing in Chopped every day,” she said, referring to the Food Network’s cooking show. “You really don’t know what you’re going to get.”

But you can bet it will be good.

What: La Soupe
Where: 4150 Round Bottom Road, Newtown; (513) 382-6779
Hours: Tue-Sat 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. (also open Mondays for carry-out only)
Try: Cabbage, sausage and potato chowder