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August 2, 2011 at 7:00 PM

Feeding Seattle’s homeless: a decade of doing “good”

In 2001, John Platt and Paul Butler had an epiphany: They could help feed the homeless. As owners of St. Clouds bistro in Madrona, Platt (who knows his way around the kitchen) and Butler (whose contribution to the cause is a central spot in the dish-pit) remain committed to that goal. On Aug. 17, they’ll celebrate the 10th anniversary of their “Homeless Cooking Project.”

What began as a half-cocked effort to feed 125 residents of a nearby tent city has blossomed into a monthly community celebration providing a restaurant-quality meal to 450 people at seven shelters throughout Seattle.

On the third Wednesday of each month, a small army of volunteers descends on St. Clouds. Troops show up at 9 a.m. with paring knives and cutting boards, fresh produce and other staples. They’re done by 1 p.m. Old hands know the drill. New recruits ask, “What should I do?” Platt — a former high-school principal — is the friendly taskmaster who provides the answer: “Good.”

This week, I threw a few more questions at him.

John Platt, in the kitchen at St. Clouds in Madrona. He and co-owner Paul “Pablo” Butler lend a hand — and their restaurant kitchen — to help feed Seattle’s homeless each month. [Seattle Times/Jim Bates]

Q: First you gave Seattle a restaurant named for the orphanage in John Irving’s “The Cider House Rules,” providing “a place where orphans come to find a sense of home and family.” Next — saints preserve us! — you made it your mission to help the homeless. What do you recall about preparing that first meal for tent city when it was located at St. Therese Catholic Church?

A: I spent most of the day thinking, “This is really exciting!” And then, “What was I thinking?! I have pork and chicken breast ready — and no idea what’s going to happen. I don’t know who’s coming, what they’ll bring, what we’ll make and how we’ll get it done in time.” And that’s exactly as it is now.

Q: These days, you and your crew prep, cook and deliver the food by midday, but for your debut dinner, you also helped serve. What surprised you most about meeting — and feeding — the homeless?

A: This was a population with many different cultures, and for them, home cooking meant so much more than mac ‘n’ cheese. My naive assumption was that they wanted to eat bland and boring food, but the big seller was gailan [Chinese broccoli] with Sriracha sauce.

Q: Financially and emotionally, we’re living in a time that’s difficult for many. How’s that affecting what you’re doing at St. Clouds?

A: What was truly dramatic was in 2008 we were feeding 300, and in the course of a few months it was 400. We were feeding the same shelters, but the number of people just blew up. That has not abated. None of those shelters have gotten smaller. And, over the last couple of years, I’ve got more volunteers who are unemployed. I’ll see a dad from Madrona who figures, “Heck, I’m not working. I’ll come up and cook.”

Q: Thanks to the largesse of kind sponsors and private donors, you’ve got expenses for quality meat, poultry or seafood covered. Otherwise, you rely mainly on volunteers to provide additional ingredients. So, you’re just winging it, like those reality-TV chefs?

A: Yes. I never really know what we’ll make, initially. It takes ingenuity and creativity. People show up with a case of mushrooms, three peppers or a couple loaves of cheese, and we just start prepping. Recently, I had 50 pounds of sockeye salmon fillets, donated by Ocean Beauty Seafoods [bless ’em]. We made salmon “napoleons” — stacking the sockeye with pesto, spinach, risotto-and-farro and a caramelized onion and red-pepper relish. Who’d ever seen that? It was beautiful. What we hope is that the moment the food comes out at the shelters, people will say, “That’s for me? Nobody does this for me.”

Q: You’re proud of saying, “We’re providing an hour of dignity and good food to people who find too little of both in their lives.” But you’re maxed-out on the number of shelters you can help support. Besides donating time and/or money to local social-service agencies, what other ideas do you have for lending a hand to feed the homeless?

A: I’d like to see other restaurants doing this, and I’d be happy to throw in my time to help show them how to get the volunteers to come in, get the donations, hook up with a shelter and get the work done — and cleaned up — in time for their restaurant to get restored for business.

There are so many restaurants sitting dark every morning. I know it’s a huge strain for a restaurant owner or manager to take this on, but I see it as a way to do a lot of good in the world, and do yourself some good. I wouldn’t lie and say it doesn’t do anything for us. We have people who come here to eat and support St. Clouds because we do this.

John Platt, seen pouring custard for flan at St. Clouds [Seattle Times/Jim Bates]. Co-owner Pablo Butler stakes out the dish-pit on “Homeless Cooking” Wednesdays, when he’s not balancing salt-and-pepper shakers or greeting patrons at St. Clouds.

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