Mojo marinated chicken thighs, adorned with a pineapple relish, make the kitchen at the Miami Rescue Mission smell like Noche Buena.
In a way, it’s Christmas in February. Chefs hired by the South Beach Wine & Food Festival meld with the regular kitchen staff at Miami’s homeless outreach nonprofit in Wynwood, some of them former residents here, some of them still recovering from addiction or domestic violence and an unexpected life on the street.
Together they move in a choreographed dance, around and in between deep fryers and burners, as they prepare dazzling meals on compartmentalized black Styrofoam plates: mojo chicken next to Cuban-style black beans and rice, a hearty green salad, and for dessert, a banana pudding topped with tropical fruits such as succulent in-season pink grapefruit that turns the bowl into a Jackson Pollock.
Food is scooped onto dishes, and dinner is served to more than 700 men and women for whom this might be the day’s only meal.
The food here is always hearty, though admittedly basic. But this weekend, they’re being fed by foodies. With the usual venue, the Miami Beach Convention Center, undergoing renovation, the festival partnered with the Miami Rescue Mission to use a multipurpose space that usually serves as everything from a prayer hall to a classroom as the prep area for the dozens of chefs who came from around the country to prepare meals costing hundreds of dollars for the festival.
In return, the festival is cooking dinner for the mission’s long-term residents and the surrounding area’s homeless men and women. A staff of chefs and line cooks hired for this role is working with the mission’s cooks to prepare more than 3,500 meals over the festival’s five days.
“I would rather do this than any other event, ever again,” said Tannie Permission, a Miami native and chef for the national company Centerplate, who helped design the weekend’s menus. Her voice cracks as she remembers her first night on the line, serving plates to Miami’s hungry and often homeless. “You can feel it. You can feel the love.”