Volunteer chefs fill NAU’s test kitchen to help prepare hot meals for Flagstaff Family Food Center clients

Volunteers chop food in the NAU test kitchen

“Are you comfortable with a knife?” isn’t a typical greeting at a community service gig.

But this isn’t a typical community service gig.

This week, dozens of members of the NAU and Flagstaff communities spent a few hours in the test kitchen in NAU’s School of Hotel and Restaurant Management, helping to prepare and package 2,000 individual meals, which the Flagstaff Family Food Center then collected and distributed to their clients. HRM stepped in as a temporary kitchen for the food center, which closed for a week to put in new floors. The food center, local grocery centers and the National Guard supplied food, and volunteers, under the tutelage of chef Mark Molinaro, prepared, cooked and boxed up food.

“It was nice to see the response,” said Molinaro, who buzzed around the kitchen doing food prep in between answering questions and giving direction. “People just said, ‘I’ll help.’ It was beautiful.”

Every day this week, people showed up to the test kitchen, donned aprons and hair nets and got to work on a nice dinner. Different volunteers moved in and out of the kitchen in two-hour shifts, with Molinaro and FFFC cook Sean Joice giving directions. Volunteers who were comfortable with knives went to work chopping herbs and vegetables. Others got to work preparing chicken. People who didn’t have a lot of experience in the kitchen made vinaigrettes, washed vegetables for salad or prepared a garnish—yes, each diner got a garnish.

Chef Mark Molinaro
Chef Mark Molinaro demonstrates how to cut a bell pepper.

“We wanted to add some Lumberjack love in there,” Molinaro said.

For the first shift on Monday morning, the menu was Greek-style chicken, rosemary roasted potatoes and salad. The group started by picking fresh rosemary from the HRM garden. The opportunity to use the abundance of fresh herbs in the garden is one reason Molinaro picked the menu he did.

Getting to harvest the herbs was an unexpected delight for cousins Kyrah Carrola and Jaeda Sesma.

“This is very new, and it seems interesting and fun,” said Carrola, a freshman dental hygiene student, as she minced the aromatic, its fragrance filling the kitchen. Sesma, a sophomore nursing student, agreed.

“I thought we were going to be boxing up food, but instead I got to pick rosemary,” she said with a laugh. “We’ve never done that before.”

The cousins were both interested in a service opportunity when they got an email about helping to prepare meals. They jumped at the chance to learn a little about cooking while also helping their community.

“There are people that are definitely less fortunate than other—people who are struggling to have food, even when they’re working,” Sesma said.

Jordan Fendley, the sophomore class president at Coconino High School, took advantage of a day off to volunteer at the kitchen. Her mother works at NAU and got an email asking for volunteers, and Fendley, eager for a chance to earn some service hours, signed up. She loves cooking—and is comfortable with a knife—but was willing to take on whatever task was needed. She did service in school, she said, but she wanted to expand that reach to the community.

“I thought this would be a great way to serve,” Fendley said.

President Cruz Rivera chops bell peppers
President Cruz Rivera volunteered on Tuesday afternoon, wielding his chopping skills to prepare bell peppers.

For senior Michael Hopper, who’s an HRM major, being in the kitchen was nothing unusual—the test kitchen or his own. He regularly cooks at home, and as someone preparing to work in restaurants, this was great experience.

“I had free time on my hands, so I thought I’d come here and help,” he said. “It’s better than binge-watching ‘Friday Night Lights.’”

Experience was on Molinaro’s mind too. While volunteering was open to everyone, he set aside the lion’s share of work on Tuesday and Thursday for two of his classes to be in the kitchen cooking. They’re going to be chopping onions either way, he joked—better to do it to fill stomachs than for a grade.

“Service learning, here we come!” Molinaro said.

This opportunity, combined with 18 months of pandemic learning, is changing how he looks at his lesson plans. Before 2020, his classes would cook for each other and a few invitees. COVID-19 made that unsafe, so instead, they cooked boxed meals and donated them to the Boys & Girls Club. The result wasn’t just good food and resume-building experience; it was students who were cooking with a purpose. It helped them connect with their “why,” Molinaro said—the motivation for each of them to be in the kitchen, planning and preparing meals, learning knife cuts and nutrition. It’s not enough to know what you’re doing; he wants them to know their own personal reasons for why they’re doing it.

For Darryl Colebank, a financial oversight analyst at NAU, his “why” was simple.

“I’ve been troubled with that’s going on in the world and the way people are treating each other,” he said. “I’ve been looking for something to do for the community and saw this and volunteered.”

It’s not his first time pitching in—Colebank was one of many Lumberjacks who showed up to help fill sandbags and clean up after flooding in Flagstaff this summer. Chopping rosemary was a breeze compared to that, but regardless of the task, he was happy to be there.

“It’s great NAU is doing this,” he said as he stripped the rosemary leaves off the sprig and grabbed his knife. “It’s great that we’re part of this community.”

See more photos from the test kitchen.

Northern Arizona University Logo


Heidi Toth | NAU Communications
(928) 523-8737 | heidi.toth@nau.edu



NAU Communications