He first studied his craft by watching TV cooking shows in prison, and Allbright is now trying to keep Baltimore’s most vulnerable residents fed during a pandemic. As the culinary director at the Franciscan Center in Baltimore, Allbright’s job has evolved in recent weeks with the growing demands. While some other organizations and soup kitchens scaled back as the novel coronavirus spread, Allbright’s kitchen ramped up.
Before covid-19, it would prepare 350 to 500 meals a day. On a recent morning, Allbright arrived at the center shortly after 4 a.m., and he and his staff churned out nearly 7,000 meals over the next several hours, all destined for the city’s homeless, at-risk, aging and destitute.
“They’re kind of like a forgotten population. We can’t afford to forget them, though,” he said.
In March, as the city shut down and many services dried up, the center, a nonprofit founded nearly 52 years ago by the Franciscan Sisters of Baltimore, kept moving. Before the coronavirus, the center did no deliveries. All of the meals were served indoors to 70 or so people at a time lining up and eating cafeteria-style. It now operates on an elaborate delivery schedule, working with more than two dozen partners and community programs to serve individual homes, senior centers and homeless encampments.
Allbright isn’t content rushing a box of food out the door. He is determined to serve restaurant-quality meals with healthy, fresh ingredients. The menu could range from falafel to chicken Parmesan to vegetable marinara over linguine — each dish carefully plated, even if it’s in a to-go container.
“We create all of our meals from scratch now,” said Jeffrey Griffin, the center’s executive director. “We’ve gotten healthier, we’re spending less money, and we’re serving more people. That was Chef Steve’s vision. He really cares about the clients we serve.”
Allbright can relate to their struggle and the uphill climb. He spent nearly six years in prison. In fact, his time behind bars is what stoked his passion for food. The New Jersey native worked in high-end security in New York when he was younger, providing protective services for entertainers, supermodels and Manhattan’s elite. He says he was part of the security detail for President Trump’s 1993 wedding to Marla Maples.
Allbright would often whisk clients into clubs and ballrooms through backways and kitchens and was always fascinated by what he saw. But the late nights and fast pace transformed him, and he says his ego took over.
“I forgot about who I was,” he said.
Allbright was arrested in 2007 on domestic violence charges. He knew things were out of control and something had to change. “That’s also the last time I had a drink or a drug — May 29, 2007, my sobriety date,” he said.
Prison offered nothing if not time to consider his past and sort out a future. He found himself passing the days watching cooking shows on public television hosted by famous chefs such as Emeril Lagasse, Jacques Pepin and Julia Child. Years later, he found himself cooking alongside New Orleans chef John Besh. “I said: ‘This is amazing, Chef. A few years ago I was watching you in my cell,’ ” Allbright recalled.
The prison food wasn’t palatable — “But you had to eat it to live,” he said — and behind bars he got his first gig cooking for others. He had just a microwave, Ramen noodles and whatever was available in the commissary or could be obtained covertly.
The specialty was what inmates called stir fries and hookups. Allbright would use a foot basin tub to cook, a wire hanger to whisk, the top of a tuna can to cut. Everything was a potential ingredient: summer sausages, pickles, the rare fresh vegetable.
“If you were lucky, someone who worked in a kitchen could get you a pepper or an onion,” he said. “But it was all right. I loved the idea of creating something. I started thinking, ‘You know, I have this thing for cooking.’ ”
Shortly after he was released in 2014, he enrolled in Stratford University in Baltimore and earned associate’s degrees in both culinary arts and baking and pastries. After working in restaurant kitchens, he found himself drawn to nonprofits serving at-risk populations.
Allbright joined the Franciscan Center last year with designs on an overhaul. For years the center’s culinary focus was on premade meals, which amounted to opening a can or reheating food.
“I decided that we were going to change the way we feel and what we were going to eat,” Allbright said.
He cut out sugary drinks and unhealthy foods and started seeking food donations for fresh ingredients. Suddenly, the center’s visitors were staring at foreign foods: quinoa, couscous, bulgur wheat, brown rice instead of white, and chicken prepared 20 or so different ways.
“The goal this year is to include a salad with every meal,” Allbright said. “We knew we had to give them a more healthy way of eating. Food is life, as I always say.”
That’s the case now more than ever. As word spread that the center was still churning out meals in March and April, the center’s phone kept ringing. Government agencies, senior citizen homes and social workers were calling. Several weeks into the pandemic, the center has touched every Zip code in the city.
A year ago, the center was preparing about 10,000 meals each month. In one recent week alone the staff did more than 21,400 meals, and it has served more meals since mid-March than it did all of last year. Allbright helps coordinate with volunteers and other agencies about 60 individual deliveries a week — pantry bags that include three meals for three people — for seniors and people with disabilities. They send even more to five senior centers, a low-income housing project and a local church. In May, it made and distributed 66,000 meals.
The center is still serving in-person meals, too, and Allbright oversees the preparations for grab-and-go boxes of gourmet recipes.
“We had to keep doing that,” he said. “Even [in] prison you get a hot meal every three days.”
When things return to normal, Allbright wants to keep expanding. Many people are referred to the Franciscan Center when they’re released from prison. The center’s staff helps get them settled, obtain identification and social security cards and connect with social workers. Allbright wants to start a culinary training program that will give them some job skills and hope and maybe spark the same love for cooking that has helped him in so many ways.
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