Sometimes you need to feed the soul. And sometimes feeding others salads of local greens and fresh tomatoes, maybe spinach-squash lasagna and chocolate-peanut butter pie does just that, especially for the cook. Just ask chef Mary Ellen Diaz whose desire to give back led her to create First Slice, a self-funded charity to feed the needy and homeless, more than a decade ago.
Diaz, who grew up in Virginia with mom, dad, four sisters and a brother, had trained in France (including at l’Ecole des Arts Culinaires in Lyon) and worked at multistarred restaurants (North Pond, Printer’s Row), and with Richard Melman at Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises.
She was on a leave of absence from Lettuce (after she and her partner adopted their second child) when she began volunteering at soup kitchens, stirring her culinary experience into the meals. “It only took one night of making meals amazing for people in need and seeing the smiles that made me realize I could do something here,” Diaz said.
How would she fund her dream? The stay-at-home mom knew she struggled to get family meals on the table. There had to be others. She took skills learned at Lettuce, seasoned it with research from her North Pond days and topped it with this: In the restaurants where she’d worked, “the first slice of pie was always served to our staff. … So this symbol of pie as community was important as was the first slice being the most important.”
First Slice today funds its efforts with a “shareholders program,” with some 100 subscriber families receiving home-cooked, restaurant-quality meals weekly. Funds from those subscriptions are used to make the same quality meals for people in need. Community volunteers, working with First Slice staff, serve often 300-plus needy and homeless each week through several social service organizations, such as Streetwise. And there are three cafes (North Ravenswood inside the Lillstreet Art Center, North Ashland Avenue, and Manor Street).
In the past several years, a small job training program has been added. “It’s not 12 people sitting around a table learning to saute a chicken breast. It’s a few people sauteeing hundreds of chicken breasts,” says Diaz. “We’ve always thought about our food as being a magnet for our services. If people know that there’s a great meal waiting for them at an organization, they are much more likely to come and get the services needed.”
And while there are donations, it’s not the major focus: “We all feel much more driven if our mission is based on us sort of rolling up our sleeves and cooking for every dollar,” she says, whether its for the subscription program or the cafes. “We find a lot of joy in that and that’s why we’re sort of a different organization. You can come in and have good food, and other people can have good food too.”
Q: What’s your professional mantra?
A: One of those that drives this program is from the Chicago Recovery Alliance: Any positive change. It’s the idea that each of us has the ability to create a positive change in every needy person we meet. Making a connection, whether simply eye contact, a handshake or, with First Slice, providing a meal can really help create a positive change in someone who’s living on the street. I talk about that aspect with my kids too. … Everybody has something wonderful in them.
Q: What is your greatest attribute?
A: My greatest attribute and my greatest fault are the same — passion and loyalty — and I have a lot of both. It works well. I’m passionate about social justice and my kids and food. And I have a lot of loyalty toward all of that. And my fault is that I have it in the extreme.
Q: Is there a great lesson you learned from your mother or father?
A: After my dad passed away, they dedicated a park to him. I was overwhelmed and felt humbled by the number of people who came up to me and told me stories about what my dad had done for them. Whether it was helping to buy their son’s first Little League outfit or helping them with a legal case or giving them money to buy Christmas presents. Just countless stories our family never knew about. That carries into First Slice. … We do what we think is important work and we do it quietly.
Q: What did you want to be at 13?
A: I’ve always wanted to be a chef. My family has Spanish heritage … some family from Mallorca, Spain, and some from Puerto Rico. I grew up with the rice and beans and corn tortillas and those are some of the best food memories that I have.
Q: Favorite artist?
A: My go-to is Sarah Vaughan, all the jazz singers. … Every generation creates their own style and I love to see how that evolves from generation to generation.
Q: What’s your secret to success?
A: I am not successful yet. I don’t feel successful. …We strive here to be a better organization. I strive to be a better person. Our family strives to help people to understand our uniqueness.
Q: Your biggest mistake?
A: Sometimes I feel like I left the restaurant world too soon. There’s a lot of it I miss. … But it’s a mixed bag, right? Because if it means I couldn’t be around my kids at night, then I wouldn’t want to do that.
Q: Hardest thing about being a mom?
A: It’s all-consuming. Wanting to be there for them when you’re also trying to balance career.
Q: Favorite food beyond pie?
A: I don’t know if I have a favorite food, (but) I have a pizza oven in my backyard and I love that sort of slow food, where we fire it up on a Sunday and people come by and we spend hours and hours outside telling stories.