First Slice Pie Cafe
4401 N. Ravenswood
On a frigid afternoon the week before Christmas, Mary Ellen Diaz hurries into Epiphany United Church of Christ, home of First Slice, the organization she founded to provide restaurant-quality food to needy Chicagoans. In the small basement kitchen of the church, off Damen just south of Irving Park, her small staff and a handful of volunteers are preparing pork chops, oxtail soup, chicken potpies, and glogg cakes–a holiday specialty. Diaz peers into a large pot of soup. “Hank, I need more vegetables in there,” she says. “I need carrots and celery.” She pulls out some cash, and a volunteer heads off on a grocery run.
Diaz launched First Slice—as in the first slice of the pie rather than the crumbs—in 2002. She signed up paying subscribers for three freshly prepared three-course meals every week—such as salad, veggie lasagna, and peanut butter chocolate pie—then used the income to provide the same meals for free to the needy. At one point she had nearly 100 subscribers, but she eventually decided she was too busy cooking for them instead of the poor. Now she has 40 or so, though she recently started advertising for more. They allow her to offer hundreds of free dinners every week—nutrient-rich meals instead of the processed, highly starchy, heavily sugared foods the needy too often get from food pantries.
Hoping to bring in more funds, Diaz opened the First Slice Pie Cafe in November, a few tables tucked into a corner on the first floor of the Lillstreet Art Center. She offers slices of several truly scrumptious pies—from basic apple to red wine and poached pear—cakes, cookies, and fair-trade coffee served in mugs made at the center. The nondesserts include simple, hearty dishes such as Swedish pea soup, turkey chili, black bean tamales with pepita salsa, and shredded duck, baby spinach, and mozzarella served on sesame flatbread. Several dishes are from the First Slice repertoire but with a twist: the bacon and eggs dish Diaz serves the homeless becomes a light but rich bacon and sweet onion quiche. “Quiche doesn’t connect with people on the street,” she says. Everything’s affordable, which is a little surprising given that Diaz is a three-star chef and the ingredients she uses are locally grown and organic whenever possible.
Diaz studied with Madeline Kamman in California and at L’Ecole des Arts Culinaires in Lyon, and she was head chef at the Printer’s Row restaurant for several years. But she was always more interested in working in a restaurant modeled on Jane Addams’s Hull House community kitchen than in becoming one of Chicago’s celebrity chefs. In 1997 she rehabbed an old skaters’ warming house in Lincoln Park and opened it as North Pond Cafe, where she emphasized seasonal, locally grown ingredients she found at farmers’ markets and tried to keep prices down. She wanted the cafe to be “something where friends could walk in and have a good meal. Every place I’d cooked prior to North Pond were places that my friends could only go to on special occasions—not just their birthdays but their 30th birthdays.”
But the opening of the cafe coincided with the birth of her partner’s daughter, and before long Diaz was wishing she could spend nights at home with the child. One evening a group of Lettuce Entertain You partners who were fans of her cooking came into the restaurant. “It was definitely late at night, and I was disgruntled about the fact that I was still there,” she says. “I mentioned something about wanting to find a more nine-to-five job. Within a week I got a call from Richard Melman, offering me his corporate chef job–and I could work out of my house if I wanted to.” In 1999 Diaz gave up her part ownership in the business and spent the next few years concocting new dishes for the Lettuce empire. She says she loved the job, but when she and her partner adopted a son in late 2001 she decided she had to move back closer to her Addams-inspired vision. “What kind of values do I want to teach my kids?” she asks. “There’s need right next door to you, and I want my kids to see that.”
Getting good food to hungry people proved more complicated than she’d assumed. At first she partnered with organizations that already helped the needy, but she says they often turned away unruly individuals–the people she thought needed her cooking most. As she puts it, “I felt like if I was going to blow a decent restaurant career I wanted to find the people most in need of nutrition.” So she started First Slice. Many of the free meals she now makes are distributed through groups such as the Chicago Recovery Alliance and the Heartland Alliance’s HOPE Center, both of which serve people with substance-abuse problems.
Diaz believes she’s found her calling. She remembers volunteering at Angelic Organics a few years ago, teaching low-income families how to make the best use of the boxes of vegetables the farm donated. “That’s when I knew that I was meant more to cook for people in need than for people who could more than afford to sit at a restaurant,” she says. She admits that if she raised her prices at the cafe or opened a fine-dining First Slice restaurant she could probably afford to feed even more needy people. But she also wants to challenge the notion that the more food costs the better it is. “I want everyone to be able to enjoy decent food,” she says.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Carlos J. Ortiz.