Heaping plates of savory Peruvian-style fried rice (arroz chaufa) with ham and peas, sautéed vegetables and delicious Italian pastries just to satisfy your sweet tooth…all dished up for you for FREE. That’s what dozens of locals were treated to at Rockaway Day this past Saturday, March 25.
It was a damp, overcast and rainy day, but that did not stop locals, Louis Harris, east coast representative of the nonprofit, Black Surfer's Association (BSA) and friend, Tina Schlissel from bringing some sunshine to Rockaway Beach Boulevard. In their crisp, white chef coats and welcoming warm smiles, they gave out heaping plates of steaming free food. Yes, free. This was not a gimmick or sales pitch. As part of ‘Rockaway Free Food Day,’ in front of yoga studio, Rockaway Love on 90-16 Rockaway Beach Boulevard, these two just humbly served something unfamiliar, yet wonderfully tempting for passersby in the neighborhood — indubitably free, flavorfully fragrant food.
Why? According to Harris, he received an unexpected, but fantastically generous donation for his nonprofit, BSA. “This anonymous donor in a handwritten letter, accompanied by a check for $1,500 just simply stated that she admired the work I was doing in the community, something she did herself for 30 years. She said that at this season in her life, she is physically unable, but happy to support folks who tirelessly work to uplift youth and the community at large,” Harris said.
Instead of just holding on to the extra surplus in money, after paying off some expenses for upcoming projects for his nonprofit, Harris said that he wanted to do something unusual, but rewarding for the community. Thus the idea for free food on 'Rockaway Day' was born.
Harris contacted local Peruvian rotisserie, Chicks to Go, and bought platters of food. Also, his former employer, Russo’s On The Bay in Howard Beach, where he previously worked as a prep cook for their Department for the Aging food program, donated gourmet Italian pastries.
So how did locals first react when encouraged to grab a plate?
“It was really interesting to see how at first, folks were shy and some were even suspiciously eyeing us, while gawking at the plates of food. I guess people were shocked that it was totally free, nothing expected in return. Once they accepted a plate, you could see the euphoric glee in their eyes, and of course wanted more. Of course, we had to reign that in,” Harris laughed.
“We gave out more than 60 plates. Even some homeless people came and shyly accepted plates. Folks kept saying that you don’t see this kind of stuff in Rockaway. Free Food? Unheard of for them.
“I wanted to just spread some positive joy in the community. I would love to make this a monthly surprise event. I wouldn’t promote it until probably the night before, because I might end up running out of food fast!
“This is also a great way for local businesses and nonprofits to collaborate together to do something positive for the community. For business’, it only boosts their presence in the community, whilst doing something positive that folks would always remember them for,” Harris said.
Anna Lev, proprietor of yoga studio, Rockaway Love, said that when Harris contacted her for permission to set up their tables and food in front of the studio, there was no question. “I love the work Louis and his nonprofit does in the community. Between the beach cleanups and cooking classes for children, I felt honored to be invited to offer something. To be honest, I didn’t do much, but I was happy to play a small part in such an amazing endeavor,” Lev said.
What’s next on the menu for Harris and his nonprofit? This Saturday, April 1 at 1p.m., there will be free yoga for kids at Rockaway Love. Also in the third week of April, there will be a free cooking class for kids hosted by Chef Carlos Varella of local Brazilian eatery, Beach Bistro 96, located on 95-19 Rockaway Beach Boulevard. In addition, stay tuned for information about upcoming community beach cleanups.
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