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  EN LA VIDA

Mary Ellen Diaz: Slice of Life
by Andrew Davis
2003-12-01

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Images for this article: 1 (click on the thumbnail to see fullsize)

Pictured: Mary Ellen Diaz receives an award from Mayor Daley at his 2003 GLBT Pride reception in June. Photo by Tracy Baim

The following business profile also appeared in the Nov. 12 Windy City Times as part of our IBM/WCT Business and Technology Leaders series. Diaz also received an award at the Nov. 20 IBM and Windy City Media Group GLBT Business and Technology Leadership Awards.

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Mary Ellen Diaz had a pretty nice career working as a chef at an upscale business. She, however, felt that something was missing - and followed her passion.

Today she presides over the program known as First Slice, which is run from Ebenezer Lutheran Church. First Slice involves people paying subscriptions for sumptuous meals like seared salmon. For every four paying members, one family in need gets the same meals each week at no cost. In talking with Diaz, I discovered a compassionate person who believes in life and family.

Windy City Times: Where did you learn to cook?

Mary Ellen Diaz: I worked at a number of places. Most of my schooling was in France. I went to Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and then Le Ecole des Arts Culinaires in Lyon, where all the chefs send their kids to school. Then, I worked in a few restaurants and was able to make the necessary connections ... which is particularly hard if you're a woman. It's hard to get a job if you're a woman in France.

WCT: So the business is pretty male-dominated.

MED: Yes, it's definitely male-dominated. [The male chefs there] don't quite understand why a woman would want to enter the field ... and if a woman gets a job, it tends to be in pastry. I got one job because they assumed that every American girl knows how to make chocolate chip cookies. So the atmosphere was pretty sexist.

WCT: When you came back to the United States, who'd you cook for?

MED: Before I arrived in Chicago, I had worked in other restaurants such as The Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Virginia. [My partner and I] came to Chicago because she wanted to go to law school. (She went to the University of Chicago.) Then, I worked at the Ritz-Carlton and then became a chef at The Printers Row. From there, I opened North Pond Cafe.

WCT: But you still didn't feel fulfilled?

MED: My partner and I have two kids. After my partner had a baby, I realized that - in order to be a good parent - you should be home at nights. That, to me, is a really important part of being a parent. I was offered a 9-to-5 job with Lettuce Entertain You as their corporate chef. That's the job I was with prior to opening First Slice.

First Slice evolved because we adopted a second child. The child feels like such a miracle and an amazing gift - and I wanted to give back. About that same time I was working in soup kitchens. I got to know homeless people and realized that I had a big soft spot for them. Homeless people [aren't] scary; they have a sense of humor and are intelligent. We started a job training program at [alternative meal site] Dignity Diner on Sheffield and Diversey. From that it evolved that I wanted to help homeless people full-time. It was also important for my kids to know that you just can't ignore the homeless. You can't ignore the issues.

WCT: I think what you do is very admirable. How did you come up with the name First Slice?

MED: When you're in the restaurant, the first slice is always the sacrificial slice because it never comes out of the pie the right way. It's about sacrificing your best for other people.

People think about the homeless when they have expired boxes of macaroni and cheese or lots of canned goods. I wanted to feed the homeless the same kinds of ingredients that I used in restaurants. Giving them really good meals tends to inspire homeless people. Really, First Slice is about giving your first.

We're now evolving into a catering business. The [principle's] still the same; the first slice of the funds (16-20 percent) goes toward feeding the homeless.

WCT: So how does the core program work?

MED: We actually do two things. First, we cater for not-for-profit organizations, which allows homeless people to work and earn wages. The second program is a family-to-family program. We sell coolers of food. We package three meals for a family of three and itís $42 per week, so itís about $4.50 for a complete meal. We also include pies, our signature food. The food is predominantly organic. We accept payments on a month-to-month basis and most people don't leave the program because the food is so inexpensive. We want to get people away from grocery stores.

WCT: What is the most satisfying aspect of working at First Slice?

MED: For me, it's the direct contact with people who need food. We made lasagna for one guy who couldn't believe how fabulous it was; he hadn't tried it before. I like asking people what they want to eat and then bringing it to them the next week. I believe it's really empowering for them. I also like the family-to-family contact. I'm still learning the issues and it's nice to know that people who canít afford food are eating the same quality food as people in nice restaurants. I'm really proud of that part of it.

WCT: It seems like the homeless people are getting a boost of self-esteem because they can feel worthy of getting the same meal that a restaurant patron is eating.

MED: Yes, I think that's very important. I think everyone means well when they volunteer and serve food on the street but taking the time to prepare food for homeless people [is also really important]. It turned out that this was a way to use my craft that I hadn't thought about. I used to think that whatever food they got was fine - but it's not. Everyone has a palate and if you're able to tap into someone's soul ... it's really empowering for them.

WCT: What would you say is the most challenging aspect of your job?

MED: I think putting it all together is the toughest part. We're constantly going; for example, this week we're up six nights. We're preparing over 360 meals this week and it's a challenge because I'm a bit of a perfectionist and I want everything to be nice. It's hard but I'm amazed at the numbers [of homeless people]; the number of homeless GLBT youths out there is pretty shocking.

WCT: I can believe that there are a lot of homeless GLBT youths because some of them are shunned by their families ...

MED: I think that the situations with these kids is one of the things that really drives me. They don't have people who understand what they're going through and they're kicked out onto the street. I can't imagine being young and having to go through that experience. I want to help them - and I can through cooking.

WCT: Not to get too spiritual, but do you ever feel like starting First Slice was a calling?

MED: Oh, yeah, I probably do. I feel like it was a calling. I knew I wasn't a "happy" restaurant chef. I got great reviews and people would tell me that they loved my food - but I never went home truly satisfied. Now I feel like I'm on top of the world. Things even went well when I had all this excess ground beef and ending up making sloppy joes. The homeless people were like, "I love sloppy joes!"

What's also amazing are the volunteers. Seeing them get psyched about serving food - like waiters in a restaurant - is pretty great. Bringing people together is a great thing.

WCT: How have computers helped your business?

MED: We use them a lot. We actually use the IBM ThinkPad. I want to learn [about computers]. Sometimes life is one-dimensional because all you're thinking about is food. I'm doing things I've never done before like e-mail clients and compose newsletters. If a volunteer cancelled tonight, I could quickly put out an e-mail to find a replacement.

The biggest thing for me is since I've started this project I can go on the Internet and get all sorts of recipes. If someone suggests buttermilk biscuits, I can look and get 10 different recipes for those. It's pretty amazing that I have a whole cookbook collection but I haven't used it because the Internet is so fabulous. It's nice having a laptop to carry around.

WCT: What's the best piece of advice you've ever received?

MED: It was from Dan Bigg, executive director of Chicago Recovery Alliance. His motto is "Any positive change." I like the idea that any positive change can really affect people and make what seems like an insignificant favor truly important. Any kind of contact can work wonders.

WCT: By the way, what's the weirdest thing you've ever cooked or eaten?

MED: To be totally honest, I actually cooked and ate duck testicles in a French restaurant. (Laughs)

WCT: OK, Iím sorry I asked.

To learn more about First Slice, contact Mary Ellen Diaz at firstslice@msn.com .

I'm at westelm406@yahoo.com .


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