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 | By Michelle DiFranco

Serving Up Dignity

When it comes to feeding the hungry, I think of our neighboring soup kitchens and the caring volunteers who work there, selflessly bringing simple but critical nourishment to those in need. Not too far from where I live, the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, a ministry of the Capuchin Province of St. Joseph, tends to the needs of Detroit’s homeless. But in the area of food, it’s not your typical soup kitchen. It’s managed by a culinary expert who brings to Detroit’s most needy what is normally reserved for the most sophisticated of palates.   

Like most executive chefs, Alison Costello has had a passion for fine food her whole life. The Michigan native studied at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York, and has trained with some of the most renowned chefs in the culinary industry. Alison’s career has included positions as an executive chef in fine restaurants, a personal chef, a culinary consultant and as a corporate caterer.  

But despite a successful and vibrant professional career serving the wealthiest and most discerning of clients, a different type of hunger plagued Alison. She found herself relentlessly drawn back into her Catholic faith and compelled to apply her world-class skills for a different type of client: the homeless.  

“I was very burnt out from the secular cooking world and found the job with the Capuchins through a headhunter. It was the right fit at the right time. I was able to be a real mom to my kids, spend more time with my husband and work with like-minded people who shared the same values. God just knew where to plant me,” she says.

For Alison, it’s not only about who she is serving, but what she is serving. To provide a sustainable and culturally nourishing kitchen, she works with local farmers, wholesalers and co-ops to purchase seasonal and organic ingredients, as much as possible. And as site manager and executive chef, she holds true to her philosophy of creating “made-from-scratch” culinary experiences for those she serves. “In order to create lives of dignity to those who are chronically poor, broken, addicted and homeless, I wanted to send home the message that people, no matter who you are, deserve fine food,” Alison says.

With a passion for applying her culinary gifts to a ministry of serving those in need, Chef Alison has found a way to simultaneously exercise and challenge her culinary skills, respond to the calling of her faith and provide nourishment and dignity to the hungry in her community.

Alison’s squash gratin with blue cheese and sage

(Serves 6-8)

  • 5 cups cubed, peeled hubbard squash (acorn squash or pumpkin is fine, too)
  • ½ cup bread crumbs
  • 4 tsp. olive oil
  • 2 cups thinly sliced onion
  • 1-2 tbs. chopped sage and thyme
  • ½ tsp. sea salt
  • ¼- ½ tsp. fresh black pepper
  • ½ cup or so crumbled blue cheese (I like Salemville Amish gorgonzola or Maytag Blue)

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Steam squash until tender. Mix breadcrumbs with 2 teaspoons olive oil. Sauté onions in the rest of the oil until translucent. Put in bowl with squash, sage, salt and pepper. Gently combine. Lightly grease baking dish and pour mixture in. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes. Crumble cheese on top, then sprinkle bread crumbs on top. Bake until cheese melts and crumb (gratin) topping is light, golden brown.