“It takes a village to feed a village.”
Joan Cheever has learned that in the past year. The founder of the Chow Train food truck has relied on many to help her in her mission to feed San Antonio’s homeless and hungry.
The chef, who is also a student at St. Philip’s Culinary School, needed a corps of volunteers from Broadway Bank Sunday as she made food for more than 150 military men and women who were part of the crews building a home for a Wounded Warrior as part of the TV program, “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” The Floresville home for the Shiloh Harris family was co-sponsored by Morgan’s Wonderland, through the efforts of Gordon Hartman.
Hartman’s involvement was what got Cheever out to the site twice recently. The first was on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the second was this past Sunday, as the crews finished work on the house.
Cheever planned an elaborate dinner for these volunteers, a plate laden with a garden salad with cherry tomatoes and roasted corn, Coca-Cola braised brisket, roasted brussels sprouts with bacon, roasted carrots with parsley and mashed potatoes. Pan dulces donated by Don Strange Catering crowned each plate.
To get each plate to a worker in quick time required about a dozen workers adding the food in an assembly line that had the workers getting hungrier with each addition.
Cheever gets the same response most every day from the people she feeds. Part of it is because she caters to the needs of the people she feeds. She makes sure that those with diabetes have low-carbohydrate dishes and those who are vegetarian are given meat-free dishes. She even feeds someone she calls “Vegan John,” who always asks if the food on his plate is made without meat or dairy products.
You might expect such treatment if you were paying for your meals, but most of these people are either homeless or unable to pay for a meal.
“I’m not going to let anybody go hungry,” Cheever said.
“She’s like a woman for all diets,” said Chris Plauché, who works with Cheever regularly at the Catholic-sponsored soup kitchen downtown and is in awe of her dedication.
“You do what you can,” Cheever said, adding that she’s learned a great deal from dealing with people with special needs that extend beyond normal kitchen concerns, such as the dental condition of many of the homeless creates an added challenge.
“When you’re doing a garnish, you need to be thoughtful about it,” she said.
Cheever also wants to make sure her meals are well-balanced and nutritious as possible, which means that though her food truck came equipped with a deep-fryer, she has yet to use it.
She does use items like bacon to help make some taste foods as foreign as brussels sprouts, soups or salads more appealing. “They know by now that if they don’t eat the appetizer, whether it’s a soup or a salad, Chef won’t give you the main course,” she said. “But I tell them, ‘Try it. You don’t know it, but you’ll really like it.'”
Her non-profit mission, which was registered as a 501(c)3 last summer, has grown because of the contributions of area farmers, who donate what they don’t sell at the end of their market day at Olmos Basin. She’s also been getting donations from Broadway Daily Bread. Kiolbassa donated sausage for the “Extreme Makeover” meals, and Saweet Cupcakes offered dessert for the first meal the chef provided.
Cheever juggles her truck duties with her classes at St. Philip’s, which should conclude in May.
This isn’t Cheever’s first career. In a former life, she was a New York attorney and a journalist. She’s also the author of the book, “Back from the Dead: One Woman’s Search for the Men Who Walked off America’s Death Row,” which is used as part of the curriculum at Incarnate Word.
Cheever’s family drew her and her husband, Dennis Quinn, to San Antonio, and she decided a couple of years ago to pursue a culinary degree. Out of that, the Chow Train was born. “I love to cook — and I just wanted to be a part of something,” she said.
Her truck doesn’t feed only local people. She took the truck to Joplin, Mo., last year right after the tornadoes, so she could feed the workers who were helping with the cleanup efforts there.
Cheever also plans on going across the country on what she calls a Hungry America tour, in which she would visit the most poverty-riddled areas of the country. “We would do a fabulous meal for people with local ingredients,” in order to bring them some information about nutrition and eating better, she said. She’s hoping to have other trucks offering medical screenings and advice where needed.
But she has to learn how to drive a pickup first — and a pickup with a food truck hitched to it. Until then, her husband has been helping out, both behind the wheel and in the mobile kitchen.
In the meantime, she’ll continue feeding the people who show up wherever the Chow Train kitchen rolls to next.
As Cheever said, “What does the Bible say? The poor will be with you always, so we need to do something.”
For more on the Chow Train, click here.