Tackling Hunger Differently: Meet Chef Suzy DeYoung
Suzy DeYoung is a chef with a deep culinary heritage. After studying French and business at University of Cincinnati and training as a chef in Paris, she ran a successful catering business, La Petite Pierre, with her sister. Today, Suzy runs La Soupe, a nonprofit founded to rescue food from grocery stores, farms, and food purveyors that would otherwise be wasted. La Soupe takes a chef driven approach to turn that food into healthy, nutritious meals, which are then donated to schools and community agencies throughout Cincinnati.
Her staff of 14 and a brigade of volunteers run a variety of programs, from teaching cooking classes in schools to preparing delicious meals in their 900 square foot space in Newtown. To date, they’ve rescued over 200 tons of food and donated nearly half a million servings.
We sat down with Suzy at La Soupe’s storefront kitchen on Round Bottom Rd. to chat.
You come from a long line of chefs. When did you realize cooking was your passion?
I can honestly say that becoming a chef wasn't predetermined. I was not a foodie. I mean, I was the worst eater. I wouldn’t eat anything that was red, including ketchup or pizza, or anything from the sea. I would just quiver if fish was going to be served, except for fish sticks. And when my dad’s car was in the driveway it meant we were having bouillabaisse, and I would run for the hills.
Your father moved to Cincinnati to be Chef at the Maisonette. What was it like to grow up with that culinary heritage?
I'm a third-generation chef. Hanging on the wall at La Soupe are the knives used by my grandfathers and my father. They’re old, like pre 1900s. When you look at the history, especially my grandfather at the Union Club, it’s crazy. I have all his old menus. He was cooking for Dwight Eisenhower, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy. I mean, it was super cool.
So how did you end up moving into the world of being a chef?
All of my jobs growing up had been in restaurants. My first job was at Lippert’s Bakery in Hyde Park. In college I worked in high-end restaurants… Delmonico’s, The Sovereign, The Precinct. I’d be in the kitchen working prep in the morning, go to school during the day, and then work at night serving.
I’ll never forget sitting at the window of La Petite and wishing we could just get a bus of homeless people up here so I could feed them.
I was cooking out of my apartment – little caterings with my roommate. We called it S&S Catering. We had no business catering anybody's party. I was literally on the phone with somebody teaching me how to make hollandaise because a lady said she wanted hollandaise for the asparagus.
And then, a friend of mine and her husband owned a restaurant in a hotel and so they had to do breakfast, lunch, dinner, and catering. And he had no desire whatsoever to do any catering, so he hired me to do the catering and let me use his kitchen for any catering outside of that, and I would just do the wedding buffets and banquets. I had no experience doing that but I was raised around food and I had a good palate.
By the time I graduated from UC, I was getting more and more responsibility at the hotel. They were doing really well for breakfast and lunch, but they were not doing well at dinner. Ken [the owner] said, “Well, if you think you know more about what people eat, you can do the blackboard at dinner.” So, I literally just went and bought cookbooks. And literally he was paying me to learn. I taught myself.
For more on DeYoung’s hilarious journey towards embracing her chef roots, check out this clip:
You ran a successful catering business, La Petite Pierre, with your sister. In those years, did you feel like something was missing?
Absolutely. I’ll never forget sitting at the window of La Petite and wishing we could just get a bus of homeless people up here so I could feed them. At least I could just do that. And then for years I was writing SOUP… I had NO idea why.
What was it like to leave La Petite Pierre?
It was hard. It was definitely the hardest decision of my life to leave comfort – financial comfort. Walking away from a family business was horrible. I mean, it was really, really difficult.
I might get one bag of potatoes with one rotten potato and the rest were fine, but that would be it. And in the beginning, that would be a lot. I had NO idea how much food was going to start happening.
When I left, I had no business plan for what was next. All I knew was I had to afford myself the time to really figure it out. I was going to buy my sister out and use the physical space of La Petite Pierre and turn it into La Soupe. And again, thank you Lord it didn’t work that way. She bought me out so she could keep La Petite Pierre which forced me to start looking for space.
You basically believed so much in giving yourself the space and time to figure out what was next that you left La Petite without a plan? You had faith that you’d figure it out?
That’s exactly it. I had a lot of faith. I mean, I don’t wear my Christianity on my sleeve very well, but I was a daily mass-goer for a while. I kept hearing these same words which were, “Feed my sheep.” And it was weird to me, but I couldn’t get away from it. It was like, that’s what I’m supposed to do. It was a mission and a message. I had no idea how I was going to do it. And really from that point on, everybody just started showing up as volunteers.
What was the initial idea or feeling?
I see food waste everywhere. But the poverty in Cincinnati and these kids… And I’m like, seriously, I’m a chef! Chefs are the professionals that deal with food. Just giving it to agencies – I’m not saying it doesn’t work, but it’s just one small piece of the puzzle. If I could figure out a way to get this food to people in a form they can eat – because you can’t just give away a box of peppers and expect that somebody in poverty knows what to do with it. They often don’t have a stove or an oven, or the knowledge. With you and me, we don’t have time ,so we go pick up a pizza or some sushi. What are they supposed to do, you know? They go to the Dairy Mart and they pick up a bag of chips and a coke. I mean, they’re doing exactly what we do when we’re busy. They’re doing it in the only way that they can.
Did you know where you were going to get food from or where you were going to send it to?
No, I had no idea. But I did know that I could rescue. La Petite sits above the Madeira Kroger. I was in that Kroger at least once a day when I was at La Petite. I was seeing the quality of the food that was pulled off the shelves and put onto a gray cart to be thrown away. That was a huge issue for me. I would fight with these 18- or 16-year-old produce guys. I’m like, Just give me that one,” and they’d say, “No ma’am, we have a really fresh one here.” I had a contact at Kroger who would tell me it all got donated. But the guys in produce were telling me they were throwing it away. I’m like, I am not a whistleblower. That’s not what I’m trying to do. Maybe it does get donated and they don’t know, but it’s worth looking at, because they’re saying they’re throwing it away. So they got the store manager at the time who said I could rescue there. I might get one bag of potatoes with one rotten potato and the rest were fine, but that would be it. And in the beginning, that would be a lot. I had NO idea how much food was going to start happening.
How did it grow?
In the beginning, I just went to agencies, the Drop Inn Center, Shelterhouse, Anna Louise Inn, Lighthouse Youth Services. It was like, these are all the people that need food. But I really couldn’t figure out how to target the kids. I didn’t know how to get the food to the kids or at least make them my priority.
And then one day a teacher at Oyler posted on Facebook. There had been a snowstorm, and school was closed on a Friday, and on Monday they had state testing. She saw one kid get off the bus but couldn’t find her at her desk. She ended up finding her downstairs, so weak from hunger, because she hadn’t eaten in three days. So I literally put everything in my car. Totally went rogue. Threw a folding table in my car and drove down to the park across the street from Oyler and set up there. And we started giving the food away.
We believe in trying to lift families out of poverty with dignity, health, and nutrition. I’m sorry; you can educate the hell out of the kid, but if they’re not eating, they’re not gonna learn.
Because I was bringing the food to Oyler, I got a call from the principal at Rees E.Price. And she said, “Why does Oyler get everything? They get everything. Our kids are a half a block from there and we get nothing.” And I’m like, “Who are you? Where are you? I’ll bring you food.” So then, we started with Rees E. Price because of one person’s request to help these kids.
Now, I’m trying to move myself out of day-to-day operations. The fun part for me was this injury. This was like three years ago. I smashed a finger in the tilt skillet. It was called a pulverization. It looked like a pancake. And we had the biggest rescue ever that day, which was 1,400 pounds. And I am wailing in the back. I knew it was bad. I can’t even describe the pain. I get to the hospital; they talk about amputating. I’m like, “If you’re going to amputate it, do it, like, yesterday because I’ve got to get back to the restaurant and do something with this 1,400 pounds of food!”.
I got home; my hand was literally like a big mitten. So I put it up on Facebook and just asked all my friend chefs to help me out because we had 1,400 pounds of food and a lot of hungry kids. And I can’t tell you – so many of them raised their hands. It was the most overwhelming feeling that, oh my god, there are other chefs that want to do this, too. The first one to respond is now our executive chef.
Your work touches so much: poverty, hunger, waste. How do you make it actionable and not let it get too overwhelming?
It is overwhelming. I believe bad nutrition is an epidemic that touches on so many levels. I’m not saying La Soupe is the fix all; I’m just saying we can be part of the fix. If we can be the nutritional aspect, everybody wins. If you are being forced to buy crappy food because of budget, don’t. Let us get it for you. It will be better food.
We believe in trying to lift families out of poverty with dignity, health, and nutrition. I’m sorry; you can educate the hell out of the kid, but if they’re not eating, they’re not gonna learn. They’re not gonna get any further. They can’t.
Tell us about an influential woman in your life.
The most influential woman in my life is undoubtedly my mom, Joan Adrian. My mom was the daughter of a chef, Albert Schmidt, the Executive Chef of the Union Club NYC. She married her high school sweetheart, Bob Kieffer, who was cooking at the Sherry Netherland. After their first son was born, Bob lost his battle with leukemia before he was 25. My mom was navigating life as a single young widow when she met my father, Pierre Adrian. They fell in love, married, and had three girls. My mom was the best mom, attending every swim meet, helping with school projects, and all our sports events. When I was just 13 years old, my father Pierre Adrian died of cancer. Mom, widowed twice before the age of 50, now had four children to raise. She had an amazing strength, and was always “the cool mom,” with my friends hanging out at our breakfast table. She walked me down the aisle (or the grass, as I was married outdoors) and willingly and lovingly babysat my boys, as well as my nieces, creating a bond that lasted until last September when she went to heaven. The love, strength, and fortitude my mom possessed is something I always will admire, and I hope that today she is smiling down at the work we are doing.