Students bustle about the kitchen of the Ronald McDonald House as they prepare dinner for 40 people. On the menu are pepper breadsticks, turkey corn chowder, roasted carrots with dill and chocolate-cinnamon doughnuts for dessert. At one end of the kitchen, a student is grinding pepper into a measuring cup as another student peers into a mixing bowl full of bread dough. Other students cut carrots and potatoes, while yet another student adds spices to a large pot full of chicken stock.
The kitchen’s atmosphere is warm and inviting as the students chat while they cook. Although they lack a doughnut cutter, Engineering freshman Chelsea Jahn and Engineering senior Khoi Nguyen manage to cut doughnut shapes with a drinking glass and the butt end of a wire whisk.
When their resourcefulness is noted, University alum Anthea Stolz joked, “You gotta keep some engineers around here.”
Stolz is a member of Project Flavor, a student organization on campus that plans and cooks gourmet meals twice a month at the Ronald McDonald House. The group started in 2001 when Ronny Luhur, a University alum who enjoyed cooking, volunteered to cook at the Ronald McDonald House with a service organization.
He said he was disappointed, however, when he saw that people were making boxed macaroni and cheese and sloppy joes. After asking why they weren’t making better-tasting foods, Luhur was told that there was only $50 available to feed 40 people.
A limited budget did not deter Luhur, though, who founded Project Flavor in order to provide families with tastier dining options. Although the budget has since increased to $65 for 40 people, the members of Project Flavor must still plan meals carefully, incorporating a main dish, a side dish, a bread and a dessert in each meal. Project Flavor saves money by making everything from scratch.
“Making bread for 40 people costs like $5,” said Engineering senior Katie Murtaugh, as she twisted bits of peppery dough into breadsticks.
The group buys ingredients from places such as the wholesale outlet Sam’s Club and the food distributor Gordon Food Service. Recipes are modified to cut costs; for example, the members removed leeks from the turkey corn chowder recipe and instead used onions, a cheaper alternative.
In addition, Project Flavor keeps what Stolz called a “traveling pantry” — a large plastic bin filled with kitchen basics such as sugar, bouillon cubes and a 25-pound bag of flour — which comes in handy each time the group meets to cook.
Jim Salisbury, resident manager of Ronald McDonald House explained the house’s role.
“We provide a home away from home for families with kids who are sick or being treated at (C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital),” Salisbury said.
He added that these families deal with the huge expenses of medical bills, travel and taking time off from work. Volunteer groups come to the Ronald McDonald House to cook for the families.
“When people are stressed, food can provide comfort,” Salisbury said. “Project Flavor is one of our best groups; they put a lot into it to make a gourmet meal.”
“The most fun cook date was last year when we made individual pizzas and ice cream sandwiches,” LSA sophomore Sarah Robertson said, kneading a ball of dough, Robertson laughed as she added that making ice cream sandwiches was “a huge pain in the butt. We had to spread the ice cream flat, freeze it and then cut it; it kept melting.”
Other foods that the group has prepared in the past include General Tso’s chicken, catfish and shish kabobs. Also, the members often make foccacia bread, crackers, savory muffins and cornbread. More recently, Project Flavor had an Eastern European-themed night, cooking Hungarian beef stew, pierogies, a cabbage dish and chocolate cake.
Students from a variety of majors ranging from Spanish to mechanical engineering join Project Flavor because of their common interest in cooking and a desire to engage in culinary philanthropy.
LSA senior Benjamin Bass said he originally joined the group simply because he loves to cook.
“Project Flavor reminds me that it’s easy to make delicious gourmet meals, and the appreciation of the people we cook for keeps me coming back,” Bass said.
Still, the students involve are fully aware of the service they are doing to the needy in the community.
“I love Project Flavor so much because I get to work with interesting, committed students, and it feels great when the residents appreciate the meals we make for them. Talking with the residents is the most rewarding part of the Project Flavor experience, because the situations they are dealing with are very serious. It feels great to be able to make their day better with a home cooked meal,” Robertson said.
Anyone interested in Project Flavor should e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; cooking experience is not necessary.
“We love new faces; anyone who wants to should join us,” Robertson said.