The best free restaurant in town: Manna Soup Kitchen

by DGO Web Administrator

For the last year or so, I’ve been donating cooking tools to Manna Soup Kitchen. In addition to writing this wildly popular column, I also write product reviews. I’ll receive eight or ten knives, pans, or gadgets and put them through a series of rigorous tests. Sometimes, the company wants me to send the products back, but often it’s not worth the price of shipping. Since I don’t need 10 cookware sets, I’ll send them over to Manna Soup Kitchen. I’m embarrassed to admit that, for all the time I’ve been going up there, I didn’t really know what they did. I always sneaked in and out of the back door, dropping off the wares and scooting out without paying much attention to my surroundings.

In my mind, I saw large troughs of food made from giant Sysco bags of pre-made gravy and canned goods served up cafeteria style from grumpy old lunch ladies wearing hairnets (okay, I just totally had an elementary school flashback). I also assumed that Manna was just there for the homeless population, which is a topic I’m not going to touch with a 100-foot pole (I’ve been sucked into enough Facebook comment threads to know that this issue is POLARIZING). But, after sitting down to chat with Manna’s new management team, I realized I couldn’t have been more wrong on both counts.

Seanan Culloty, the new chef/manager at Manna Soup Kitchen, affectionately called Manna “the best free restaurant in town.” It’s so good, these meals are actually inspiring people to learn how to cook. After working as the executive chef at Ken and Sue’s for seven years, Seanan was ready to take on the challenge of a constantly rotating menu at Manna. He was also stoked at the thought of cooking with a purpose. Unlike a traditional restaurant, Manna isn’t about Yelp or Trip Advisor reviews. Seanan gets to be a part of something bigger than himself, all while making a huge impact on people’s lives. Many low-income families depend on Manna for their pre-work breakfast, or they pick up a sack lunch for themselves or a take-home backpack lunch for their kids. And every Wednesday night, they’re packed with families who benefit from the 140-plus cover dinner.

It’s not just about feeding people’s bellies, either. Seanan sees it as an opportunity to nourish their sense of creativity and open their eyes to fresh, new foods. The menu changes daily depending on what they have on hand. Sometimes they’ll order in staple foods, but mostly Seanan is blown away by how much the Durango community supports and pours into Manna. Most of the ingredients come from donations, and it’s not just non-perishables. This time of year, a lot of the food comes from the farmer’s market and The Garden Project, Manna’s own on-site garden. Manna is one of the few soup kitchens in the country to have their own garden, and they’re hoping to build a greenhouse so they can continue growing in the wintertime.

Every day, fresh faces show up, excited to lend a hand and help prepare breakfast and lunch. While they’re volunteering, they’re also learning how to cook from a professional chef. Seanan helps them with their knife skills and teaches them how to bring the meal together. It’s a different group every day, but the environment is relaxed. It’s not like a restaurant where you’re constantly in the weeds as you perform your prep work. Some volunteers have been so inspired by the food they’re making that they enrolled in the culinary program afterwards.

Manna’s culinary program is the only one in the area, and its new manager, Heather Hinsley, is bustling with ideas for upcoming terms. As a former art teacher who also has culinary experience, Heather is all about creating edible art. The classes are kept small (8 to 10 people) to focus on hands-on teaching. In addition to learning cooking skills, Heather really wants her students to think outside the box. They’ll have an opportunity to take sustainability classes and harvest from Manna’s garden, prompting them to use their imaginations to produce new and exciting farm-to-table food. And, since the 10-week program is open to the public, anyone who’s looking to take things to the next level can enroll.

My biggest take away from our meeting was how passionate Manna’s new managers are for the work they’re doing. In fact, their enthusiasm was catching: I signed up as a guest speaker for one of the classes this semester, and I’m ready to volunteer in the soup kitchen. If you want to check out what they’re doing, swing by, volunteer, and join them for a meal. Or, you can help the students get real life cooking action by attending the annual Bread for Manna fundraiser on September 29 (Saturday).

Lindsay D. Mattison is a professional chef and food writer living in Durango. She enjoys long walks in the woods, the simplicity of New York-style cheese pizza, and she’s completely addicted to Chapstick. Contact her at [email protected].

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