Monday Night Dinners: After 25 Years, Could This Really Be The End?

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As many of you know, this blog grew out of my work as chef for the Monday Night Gourmet Vegetarian Dinners in Palo Alto.  Eons ago, when I was asked to be chef for a new community group, I was skeptical that it would be a long-lasting gig, but it seemed like too interesting an opportunity to pass up. Twenty-five years later, I’m still cooking on Monday nights. But unless a miracle happens, this amazing event could soon end.

What precipitated this possibility was the announcement a couple of months ago by Ilona Pollak, our longtime dinner manager, that she didn’t wish to continue. Ilona has been manager for a decade and a half, and is one of the main reasons our dinners have been such an enduring success.  She has given valiantly of her energy, time and financial resources, and it’s completely understandable that she needs to move on.

Perhaps I should say something about how crucial the dinner manager is. She (and so far, all the managers have been women) is the nexus which makes it all work.  She takes reservations, greets the diners, makes take-outs, creates publicity, finds and supervises volunteers, and attends to the finances by collecting money, paying expenses  (which include pay to the chef and sous chef, rent to the church and take out supplies). If income is greater than expenses, the manager keeps that as her pay, and as you can imagine, on nights when attendance is low, the manager makes little or nothing, and may even lose money. It’s true that during cycles of good times, when our hall is consistently full, the manager does reasonably well, but, largely it is a labor of love, a service to our community (one of the ongoing conundrums is that although food costs have tripled in 25 years, we’ve only dared to raise the price 50 per cent).

In the past when a manager needed to move on, someone else stepped forward to train for the role and we were able to make an almost seamless transition. This time, that hasn’t happened. So far, no one has come forward to say they will take on this necessary role. If you think you might be able to do so and you’d like to learn more about the dinner manager’s job, click here. If you wish to apply, send an email to: pmcdinnermanager@aol.com.

And so, that leaves us uncertain as to what is next. It seems to me there are three possibilities: 1) having run out of steam, the dinners will end (after all, that which has a beginning, has an end), 2) the dinners will take a break during August, and during that time our community will find a manager or a team of managers to somehow keep things going, 3) we’ll hurriedly put together a plan for the dinners to continue in August and beyond. I could make a logical case for any of these possibilities, but let me simply state that I hope the dinners continue.

James Holloway, Susanne Jensen (who substitutes frequently in the summer) and I all agree that we still enjoy cooking for the community, and we’d like to keep on doing so.  I acknowledge that perhaps some of our board members and volunteers have been on the job a long time, and may want to make a change. My hope is that we’d welcome some new and younger volunteers to bring fresh energy to everything we do. Personally, I’d like to mentor younger cooks so that I can pass on what I’ve learned (both James and I are in our sixties and might retire someday –although likely not anytime soon). Finally, while there are far more opportunities to find high quality food (farm markets, vegan and vegetarian restaurants, Whole Foods, etc.) than there were when we began 25 years ago, I believe our dinners remain a unique resource, because we provide not only great food, but a place to learn, form friendships and to participate. I, for one, would miss working with all of you in our Monday night community. It’s been, and remains, a nourishing part of my life.

Having said that, if the dinners end, I’ll be fine. I have enough work to support me, and I might look for new projects to keep me engaged. Of course, I continue to work on getting my new home together, and plan to return to posting regularly on this blog.

Ultimately, of course, it is not my decision. Long ago someone proposed that I might want to take on the manager’s job. I thought about it briefly, but decided it wouldn’t be a good idea. For me, it seemed impossible to do both things well, and I decided to stay in the kitchen, where my experience, passion and, hopefully, my talent best expresses itself. My thought is, if people from the Palo Alto area community want the dinners to continue, they’ll find a way. If there isn’t enough interest and energy to do that, then it is right that they come to their proper conclusion.

And so, as of this posting, all we know for sure is that I will be cooking a dinner as usual this coming Monday, July 30th (see the menu below). Come and join us for what might be our final Monday night dinner.  And, come and find out what is happening next. Also, I’ll post news on this blog, as soon as I know anything and no doubt Gerard will send updates to everyone on his email list.  What do you think? Should the dinners end, or would you like them to continue? How would you like to see them change? How would you like to participate? Leave a comment, and let the community know your thoughts.

Menu for Monday, July 30th:

White Bean-Veggie Soup with Pesto

Corn-Leek-Red Onion Tofu Frittata

Saffron Rice and Veggie Salad

Summer Squash, Cauliflower and Roasted Tomato Salad

Mixed Green Salad with Creamy Avocado Dressing

Summer Fruit Crunch with Rich Tofu Cream

Iced Grain Coffee

After dinner, Michael Bauce speaks on “Hara Hachi Bu, Eating Lightly for Long Life”

To make a reservation, call: 650 599-3320.

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Photo: Diners enjoy our Thanksgiving-themed menu, November 2010.  Photo by Gerard Lum

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8 responses

  1. I love the Monday Night Dinners and I am sad to hear that Ilona Pollak is “retiring” as Dinner Manager. As you’ve described all that she does in making the dinners a success, it comes as no surprise to me that she is leaving. This role is equal to a full-time job (and then some). If the community decides to have a team take over for Ilona, I could see being part of that effort but for those of us with full-time jobs, doing it “solo” would be next to impossible.

  2. Everyone who knows me, knows I love the macro vegan dinners, and especially Chefs Gary and James, Assistant Paul, all of the dedicated volunteers, the community, and last but not least, the food which has nourished my body, heart and soul for almost half of its 25 years. Yes, Gary, I too am hoping for a miracle; hoping that someone feels a calling to manage & represent the weekly magic we call macro. There might not be another dinner group like it in the world, and for me it would be a great sadness should it end. Everyone who is involved, and has been involved in hosting these dinners over the last 25 years deserves a great round of applause. I hold my glass up high as I say, thank you and God bless each one of us always!

  3. The following is part of a piece I wrote for the recent 25th anniversary of the Monday night dinners:

    Good clean food of every non-meat variety;
    Veggies I can’t identify but love;
    Salads and greens of many, many varieties;
    Tempeh, and tofu just for you;
    A bonanza of beans! And veggie burgers individually grilled for each one of us;
    Sauces and salad dressings;
    Miso aged in oak barrels;
    Sea vegetables: the minerals of the ocean;
    Soups to live by and live with, and we always want seconds!
    Soups for the seasons and the centuries;
    Desserts! Tofu cream! Cakes, bars, and cookies, all without sugar,
    but perfectly and naturally sweetened with rice and maple syrups, and of course, lots of love.

    Eating mindfully in season with Tamari and Gomasio, and each other. Hundreds of smiling faces over the decades, reveling in the blessings and the bounty; foods brought forward with love and respect, and knowledge of each one’s value.

    And then there is the community. A kind of vegan macrobiotic Cheers, where everyone knows your name, and if not your name, your smile. So many healthy and smiling spirits, and so determined to stay that way.

    For all of this, and each and every one of us, for all of our efforts for each other, for all of the bountiful foods gifted to us, I say, thank you, with great gratitude for these many, many macro community blessings. Godspeed everyone!

  4. You could also revamp the whole thing and turn it into a potluck. That way the burden is not on just a few people. Someone sends out the email reminders or posts the notice on a community website; people need to rsvp and say what they are bringing; a fee is charged to pay for room rental; someone collects the fee at the meeting; people volunteer to set up and clean up. This could be done using Meetup.com or other community networking site (members would have to share the registration fee, if any, for that website). I would love to help out, but I live in Asheville, NC, where we have a very nice monthly macrobiotic potluck. It’s $5 per person to pay for the room.

  5. SUSAN: Gary has posted a link for the position of macro manager. The position is not a full-time job; it is listed at 8-10 hours a week, the majority being on the weekend collecting voice mails for the Monday dinner and attending and supervising the Monday night dinner. The manager may expand the time commitment based on their level of interest. Profits do go to the manager. There is contact information listed in the job description posted in Gary’s blog.

    GAIL: The Monday night macro community group does have a monthly potluck already. The Monday night dinners offered by the very talented and experienced chefs are GOURMET vegan offerings for a very low and reasonable cost in a community gathering. This allows people to see and taste the creative vision of veganism as the chefs produce it. The posts that Gary offers in this blog are an indication of the quality and creativity of the cooking.

    On this blog, Gary offers a menu for Monday night’s dinner, and you can go to the peninsulamacro.org website and see a listing of all the dinners and information about the community.

    The Monday night dinners allow people to eat in with the group and/or take meals out. A dedicated group of volunteers puts the take outs together, and others provide services to the dinners including, serving soup as the first course of dinner, serving the entree’s for dinner, sorting and washing dishes, cleaning the kitchen, putting up and taking down tables and chairs, washing pots and pans, washing table cloths and napkins.

    The dinners are once a week on Monday evenings and are a community effort that the manager oversees for timeliness, efficiency, hospitality, community outreach, and fiscal responsibility. Those not contributing get to appreciate the result of dining on a three course vegetarian meal with second helpings offered for the current and overly reasonable cost of $15.

    I, for one of many, hope the dinners can continue. Sky Ann McGrath

  6. I live in Australia but read this blog regularly, checking most days…I am sad to hear of this and hope that someone steps up and fills the position…if I lived closer, I would for sure. Good luck.

  7. Well, surely you have found another person to step into the manger position by now.

    Phone calls from an answering machine can be picked up from anywhere. Depending on how desperate one is, paypal can be a good friend pretty quickly, too, to collect money, although there goes 3% of the revenue.

    Restaurants—and your Monday night gig is a restaurant–don’t normally close because the manager retires. Eight to ten hours sounds like a cake walk for someone having a little of prior experience so they have a clue on what to so, and some free time on their hands and the desire to make a little money and enjoy themselves in the restaurant biz. Like an upper level college student who used to be an assistant manger at something like Subway?.

    Regarding cooking for 100 is easier than picking color: I went through something like 17 versions of grey and taupe before getting the living room color right. I went through maybe 12 colors of lavander and deeper purples to get my bedroom color right. I have a BFA in art history, so oh boy does color make me sensitive. I feel your pain on that one.

    Also I disagree about the thing of it being easier to cook for 100 people. I have cooked, alone, for 38 hours non-stop for two 12 course vegetarian dinners for 60 people–two nights of dining– for a young lady’s Bat Mitzvah. My then three year old was slung across my back a large portion of the time, due to her attachment issues. She’s 19 now, and I still never want to cook 38 hours straight again. It burned me out for years although I made a lot of money in those hours.

  8. PS Your recipes sound and of course look lovely. I’m sure you hear that all the time. Still, feedback and repeat clientele are a chef’s and a restaurant’s imprimaturs, though, aren’t they? Nice to know one is really on target with one’s do or dharma or path or whatever. Every meal is a performance piece after all– Voila, there it is….

    I had forgotten, until I read your article, and started thinking about all this, that I had Macorbiotic Chef listed as my profession on my passport three decades ago….I never went anywhere that required a passport and never renewed the passport.

    All the best to you, and my highest regards and warmest wishes to you and your crew.

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