Tucked in a corner of East Germantown is a dining room where 200 to 300 gourmet meals, many with a Haitian/Caribbean flavor, are cooked and served every Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday between 12:30 and 2 p.m. The dining room is one of many services offered by Face to Face, a nonprofit organization housed at St. Vincent’s Church, 109 East Price St. In existence for 30 years, Face to Face was incorporated as an independent nonprofit in 1997.
Chef Altenor Vaval, 40, was born in Thomazeau, Haiti, and joined Face to Face in July 2013. He has gained quite a reputation in the community for his delicious, healthy, satisfying meals. “We always serve a balanced, healthy hot meal with a starch, meat and vegetable,” he said. One day, you’ll find him cooking rice, made with small green tomatoes, a special blend of herbs and spices, olive oil, onions, garlic, lime juice and a touch of vinegar. “I make this in a big pot on the stove, not in a rice cooker,” he emphasized.
Another day, he’ll bake chicken that has been marinating overnight in lime juice and vinegar with a delicate combination of fresh herbs straight from the garden. “I don’t have a specialty. I just love good food, and the clients appreciate everything I put on the table,” he said.
Last year, Altenor and his team served 31,493 meals. The Face to Face dining room expenses totaled $277,438 or 33% of the organization’s operating budget. The organization receives free food from the Office of Supportive Housing and also relies on donations from individuals who bake casseroles at home or who bring in vegetables from their gardens. Other volunteers go from store to store collecting sweets and bread. During the summer, farmers from the Chestnut Hill Outdoor Farmers Market at Winston Road and Germantown Avenue also donate fruits and vegetables.
Altenor started a garden behind Face to Face so there will always be fresh herbs and vegetables for the kitchen during the summer months. On a recent Friday morning, a group of eighth-grade students and their teacher, Wendy Hopf, from Springfield Township Middle School were there weeding and cleaning the garden as part of the school’s annual day of service. Later in the day, they served lunch to the clients.
Face to Face’s clients are among the poorest in the City of Philadelphia. According to the Pew Research Initiative Report of 2012, nearly 30% of the population of East Germantown lives in deep poverty. That means living on $5,835 a year or less for a single person and $11,925 a year or less for a family of four.
Mary Kay Meeks-Hank, executive director of Face to Face, explained that for the most part you will not see the homeless of Germantown sleeping on grates or benches. “Homelessness in Germantown is different. It’s about not having a secure, reliable place to live. Many of our clients are called ‘couchers,’ meaning that they go from one friend’s or relative’s house to another. Many of our clients also live in boarding homes in Germantown, places that house people with mental illness,” she said.
Altenor came to the United States in 2001. “I didn’t like it here when I first came and went back to my country to study. I returned to Boston in 2004. My family in Haiti was needy at the time, so I was working two or three jobs and sending money back to them. I also had to be able to survive here,” he said. Altenor spent about seven years in Boston, and then moved to New Jersey, where he still lives. He hopes to relocate to Philadelphia in a few months.
In Haiti, he graduated from law school but did not pursue taking the bar exam or a career in law. He also studied science education because he loves learning and teaching others. Altenor has no formal education in cooking and never worked as a chef before he was hired by Face to Face, but he has been cooking since he started with his grandmother at age 6 or 7.
“He has raised the bar for nutrition and food presentation at Face to Face. He is beloved by all,” Mary Kay said. “Although he had no formal cooking experience when he came here, he had strong people skills and the ability to motivate others.”
Altenor is definitely trying to change the culture in the dining room. “There was a soup kitchen mentality when I first came here, but I don’t have that in mind. I never think I am working at a soup kitchen. That’s the kind of thinking we have to eliminate. Overall, we want to create a community and family environment here. It’s important for people to understand that this is not our kitchen, it is their kitchen.
“Respect is important in the kitchen,” said the chef. “We respect our clients, and we serve them with dignity. We respect our volunteers; we treat them as family so that they will come back. We respect our donors; we want them to know it’s not only about money, it’s about heart.”
“I truly believe that if Face to Face didn’t exist, this part of East Germantown wouldn’t be as safe and as calm as it is,” said Mary Kay. “When people leave here, they know they’ve been treated kindly and respectfully, and we hope they pay that forward.”