NORTH ADAMS -- Jared Polens is the new chef at the Berkshire Food Project at the First Congregational Church, but his ties with the organization go back much further.
"I'd been familiar with the Berkshire Food Project for years," said Polens, who took the post at the end of September. "When I worked at Wild Oats, we'd donate food here every so often, and my band played for the Empty Bowl project for many years, so I knew what the Berkshire Food Project does here. I'd been unemployed for the past few months, found out about this job, thought it would be a good opportunity to work with a good organization and enjoy some improvisation with cooking -- and it's been just that."
Polens learned about the job from Berkshire Food Project Director Valerie Schwarz, who had posted the position on Facebook and Craigslist.
"I'd known him, we're Facebook friends, so he contacted me," Schwarz explained. "Social media and all, it's very good."
The previous chef, Adam Quimby, had been with the group for two years before moving on to take another position out of town. As soon as Polens got in touch with Schwarz, she had an inkling that he would work out well.
"Jared came down, and there were a couple people that applied, but I knew it was probably going to be him," recalled Schwarz. "He came down and hung out one day, volunteered ... he was very comfortable in the kitchen and people in the kitchen were comfortable with him. He took the initiative to show people that were new what to do, how to use the knife properly, and I knew he was going to be good with the volunteers."
Polens runs the kitchen, so his duties include training volunteers and helping with fundraising events, but his main focus is preparing the meals out of what ever ingredients are available.
"You never know; he's got to take what food comes in the door," Schwarz explained. "We get a lot of food at the food bank, we purchase food at the vendors, and we watch sales at the local supermarket. So what food is available is how we plan our menu."
Luckily, Polens enjoys the challenge of improvised cooking.
"A lot of times there are donations of food that get dropped off after we're closed, and I'll come in like this morning and find stuff Williams College has donated -- which is great, we got some wonderful things from them -- and I see what we have and throw together a menu. ... I usually have a rough idea a few days ahead, but throw things together that day depending on what we have."
Polens ran the kitchen at Bascom Lodge in the late 1980s when it was still under the auspices of the Appalachian Mountain Club. His culinary resume includes various other kitchens, restaurants and bakeries such as Paul and Elizabeth's in Northampton, Cummington Farms ski area, and Maplewood Farms bakery in Amherst. After 21 years working retail at Wild Oats, Polens also returned to Bascom Lodge two years ago to do some baking there.
"Baking is my real love, and I'm hoping I'll be able to start to do more baking," Polens said. There's not a lot of time to do a lot of baking from scratch here, but hopefully I'll be able to start incorporating some of that."
Polens started in the new job in late September, and expressed appreciation for the "great local produce" from Caretaker Farm and Square Roots Farm, but with winter quickly approaching, the focus on produce will change. And sometimes the attendees are as unpredictable as the ingredients.
"We never know how many people will be here for the meal," Polens said. "We generally plan for somewhere between 80 to 100. So if I only get one pan of chicken, and I'm planning to do something with chicken, then I'll supplement it with vegetables, or chicken we already have in the freezer. If we have extra chicken, we'll chop it up and freeze it so I can incorporate it into a meal later on."
In spite of the uncertainty, Polens says that everything ends up running smoothly.
"I'm amazed it always seems to work out," he said. "It's a little scary some days, but things always seem to work out. We have amazing volunteers who are very helpful every day. The kitchen is all staffed by volunteers ... mostly the same people every week. Certain people come in on Mondays, or Tuesdays, but we can usually count on the same people every week, and they're the ones who make this all possible."
Of course, it helps that Polens is invested in the work as well.
"I really enjoy the challenge of it -- working with different people and different food," he explained. "It's great to be able to have the opportunity to provide good healthy food to people on a regular basis."