A Chef for Seniors, A Chaser of Dreams

By Yuhong Pang and Yulong Li

Seamless may be an option for middle-class New Yorkers who do not want to cook, but for low-income seniors who have difficulties making meals for themselves, an often 10-dollar minimum for delivery is enough to turn them away.

The food program at Hudson Guild, a multi-service community center, is designed to satisfy the basic need of seniors over 55 in the Chelsea neighborhood. Throughout the week, the program offers affordable breakfasts and lunches, most of which cost less than $3.

Outside of Hudson Guild Community Center. Photo by Yuhong Pang.

Selena Harris, a native Lower-East-Sider, has been Head Cook at Hudson Guild since this April.

Selena Harris prepares for the lunch. Photo by Yuhong Pang.

“My passion is in the kitchen,” Harris said. “I’ve been cooking almost my whole life.”

Prior to Hudson Guild, Harris worked as Second Cook at a law firm, where she learned to cook for large groups through feeding 1,500 people on a daily basis.

Now Head Cook, she is taking on a larger role in the kitchen at this community center, deciding each day what to be served on the table.

Pastries offered at the center. Photo by Yuhong Pang.

A bigger role also means more responsibilities, such as managing the kitchen within a tighter budget. At the law firm, she had more freedom in presenting a wider range of choices to her customers. Here, her job is to be more creative within the budget while making sure the meals meet a basic nutritional standard.

“We had that certain section at the law firm, where we catered to people who just did not want to come in to eat mashed potatoes and meat loafs,” she said.

Harris cooks vegetable soup for lunch. Photo by Yuhong Pang.

Even given the limitation, Harris still is able to impress many of the seniors:

Miri Novas, who has been working as Kitchen Aid in the center for three years, also gives a high compliment to Harris.

“The former cook here is disgusting. He pretends to be professional, but he’s not. I don’t like the way he cooks, so I don’t eat anything he cooked. Selena is better.”

The staff and customers are not the only fans of Harris. Her two sons used to ask their mother all the time what she was making for dinner.

“Oh my gosh. These sons of mine — they don’t leave me alone,” she said. “They have their own space now. But when we were living together, they were just non-stop. I would get phone calls. I would get FaceTimes.”

Harris stands behind the counter to greet customers. Photo by Yuhong Pang.

At times, when Harris got too tired to step into the kitchen after work, she took her sons out for dinner instead.

“They were so disappointed because they look forward to those home-cooked meals,” she said.

But now 50, and with both of her sons moved out, she has more time to focus on herself and her dreams.

“My dream is to open up my own catering business,” she said. “I want to really get out there and produce good quality meals and perfect certain dishes.”

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