Diners fill up bowls for charity

By Benjamin Bassham, News Editor

Under gray skies and a baleful pall of smoke from California’s wildfires, people gathered Friday to put aside their breathing masks to eat soup for charity.

Empty Bowls, hosted by Contra Costa College’s culinary arts and fine and media arts departments, is part of an international program to raise money to feed the hungry.

Pottery students, teachers, volunteers and former students have been making and decorating bowls since the fall semester started.

Those bowls were brought forth to be sold to students for $5 and non-students for $10, plus $10 for every additional bowl.

But purchase of a single bowl came with unlimited refills of soup, as long as it lasted. Tickets for a raffle for more valuable pieces of pottery cost $2 each.

The bowls were to be sold in the College Center Plaza, but to escape the visible shroud of smoke blurring the air, the tables of bowls were moved into the Fireside Hall. Allen Perlof, one of the volunteer potters, said it was nice to be able to put out all the bowls at once.

Before the completion of the Campus Center Project the bowls were displayed on tables on the lawn behind the Applied Arts Building. Instructional Assistant Angel Chau said there were about 700 bowls on display. Some were irregular, some professionally formed. Various sizes and clever uses of glazes and knurling were exhibited.

CCC President Mojdeh Mehdizadeh, when picking out which bowl to buy said, “It has to call to me.”

Dr. RanaLee Berman, a CCC alumnus, said, “I got three. Absolutely gorgeous. They make beautiful gifts.”

Live music was provided in the Fireside Hall by HULA, the Hilltop Ukulele Lovers Academy. Headed by Jon Cyr, they have attended all of CCC’s Empty Bowls events and are recruiting. Call 510-697-2561 for information. Outside and in the Aqua Terra Grill where attendees dined, music was provided by DJ Ron Webster, a CCC culinary arts graduate. After picking their bowls, buyers moved across to Aqua Terra to pay and receive an admittance bracelet confirming their purchase.

Though the bowls were prewashed, some diners took advantage of the culinary arts department’s high-powered dish washing device, made available to clean the bowls for transport home.

Then 11:30 a.m. rolled around and the culinary arts students got down to business. Chef Nader Sharkes said the soups are student projects, with distinct groups each producing their own soup.

New England clam chowder with crouton garnish, with or without bacon, is a perennial favorite at these events. It was chewy and rich, though not as thick as in previous events. In fact, culinary arts student Karandeep Rekhi said the clam chowder came out thinner than its cook intended.

On other occasions the chowder has run out early. Not this time, as there was a ton of chowder prepared. Sharkes said, “We made plenty,” but also boasted, “There’ll be no leftovers.”

“The vegan (soup) is finished, vegetable chicken is finished, a little Tom Yum is left, by the end of the day the chowder will be gone,” he said.

Eating chicken vegetable soup with cheese ravioli out on Aqua Terra’s balcony, despite the miserable haze, math major Herschel Schwartz said, “I was expecting it to be good, but it’s vastly better than something I could have made at home.”

About a bowl from a previous event he commented that the glaze resembled “cosmic sea foam,” with burst white bubbles at the bottom and nebulae up above. He also said that while the bowls are nice, “They’re always a little bit smaller than I like a bowl.”

The Tom Yum soup with shrimp and chicken is a Thai soup.

Artist Annabelle Port said, “I liked the chowder and croutons and the vegan one. Something was off with the flavor of the Thai one (Tom Yum).” Chau said, “It’s supposed to be hot and sour. It needed a little lime.” Rekhi said one difficulty was that they used lemongrass paste, because they didn’t have fresh lemongrass.

Part way through the event diner’s reactions changed. Christine Sanok, retired from Richmond Fire Department on Sept. 1 and now in her first semester as a culinary arts student, worked on the Tom Yum soup. “We’ve tweaked it, added a little more paste, trying to spice it up a little.”

After the changes it looked thicker and more brown than red. People seemed quite happy with it. Sanok said, “This weekend I’m going to do the Tom Yum at home.”

Mehdizadeh said she found the Tom Yum delicious, but the vegan soup was her favorite, though she only tried the two.

“I don’t normally like sweet soups.” Rekhi, who crafted the vegan soup, said, “Chef (Elizabeth Schwartz) didn’t really give me a recipe.”

He decided on a recipe based on what was available. Sweet potatoes, coconut milk, pureed onion and garlic, simmered into a sauce.
Schwartz said nearly 40 gallons of soup were consumed. “It’s a better turnout than last year — it
was great to see, considering the haze,” she said. She speculated that the more central location in the Student Administration Building helped more people find it.

Contracosta.edu states, “All net proceeds will go to the Bay Area Rescue Mission to support its efforts to end hunger and food insecurity in the community.”

Sharkes said CCC’s culinary arts department has a standing arrangement with the Mission, recruiting from them and even providing a one-year certificate program.