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Former Waldorf chef lends expertise to help area ministrys outreach program
Chef Luiz Souza, formerly of the Waldorf Astoria, adds diced tomatoes to a beef bourguignon Wednesday at Lakewood Baptist Church in Gainesville. Souza is helping to cook the meals for the church's Wednesday night meal, which raises money for the Lakewood outreach ministry. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Outreach dinners

When: 5 to 6:30 p.m. on the third Wednesday of every other month

Where: Lakewood Baptist fellowship hall, 2235 Thompson Bridge Road, Gainesville

Cost: $7

More info: 770-532-6307

Every other month, volunteers at Lakewood Baptist Church in Gainesville gather in the worship center's fellowship hall and prepare a meal to feed a few hundred people.

Although you'd probably expect to see items like chicken, maybe spaghetti and possibly a salad, you may be shocked to learn what they're cooking up.

For their regular dinner, they're preparing things like garlic whipped mashed potatoes — made from scratch — rice pilaf and beef bourguinon. All highly unusual church dinner fare.

"I didn't know how this food was going to be accepted in this part of the country — it's not your typical southern food," said chef Luiz Souza.

"But what I've learned (as a chef) is that if the food is good and is a good price, people will try it."

Souza, who leads the cooking efforts, isn't your typical cook. He is a formally trained chef and spent nearly two decades working in world-class kitchens like the one at the Regency Hotel on Madison Avenue in New York. He spent 13 years alone building his repertoire at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, so the dinners at Lakewood are child's play.

"I'm used to running big operations — feeding thousands of people for breakfast, lunch and dinner," Souza said.

"The secret for big functions is having a game plan. Knowing in advance what's going to happen and who is doing what."

Although the Wednesday night dinners are not exactly on the same level as serving celebrities, presidents and other famous patrons, Souza says that Lakewood's kitchen is second to none.

"The environment is much healthier. It's not like you see on TV with people yelling and pots and pans flying," Souza said.

"It's people working together for one goal — the Glory of God."

The dinners began in August and were the brainchild of Phyllis Wiley, Lakewood staff member, who was looking for a way to raise money for the church's Celebrate Recovery Inside ministry, where volunteers go to Lee Arrendale State Prison in Alto to serve as mentors for female prisoners.

"We try to meet these women the morning they get out of prison with suitcases of clothes and essentials because they usually come out with just the clothes they're wearing and a bag of books and other things they got in prison," said Wiley.

"We help them relocate to transitional housing as they learn how to become welladjusted back into society because we don't want them to relapse and go back to prison."

The volunteers become a sort of surrogate family for these ex-offenders.

"They're all trying to start a new life and put their pasts behind them," Wiley said.

"Sometimes their families won't take them back, and sometimes their (former) homes aren't a safe place for them to go back to."

Supporting their prison ministry not only takes dedicated volunteers, it also takes money, which is what inspired Wiley to seek out a fundraiser that could provide a steady source of income.

"She asked us (volunteers) if we would be interested in doing a fundraiser and of course we all said yes. She suggested that we do a dinner and all make pots of chilli," said Pamela Souza, wife of Luiz Souza.

Instead of chilli, Pamela Souza suggested that maybe they'd like to think a bit bigger, which is when she asked her chef husband to lend the ministry a helping hand.

So far, bigger has been better because the crowds continue to grow.

"God continues to bless it," Wiley said.

"We've just had a great response."

For $7 per person, diners get a five-star entree, beverages, specialty bread and dessert. They also offer simpler meals like Kosher hot dog meals for kids. They even have things for the non-meat eaters.

"We also always have a big salad. I'm a vegetarian - that's how God made me — so I can't stand meat, but I love all of the side things," said Pamela Souza.

"So I always prepare a big salad to go with the meal."

And the salads aren't just a pile of iceberg lettuce on your plate. At the last dinner, they served a Greek salad with kalamata olives and feta cheese. The time before that, there was an avocado and red-onion mixed salad with a rice wine vinegar dressing.

You don't have to attend the church to partake in the meal, but you may want to make a reservation before the next one in March. To reserve your spot, call the church office at 770-532-6307, or you can feel free to just pop up the day of.

The dinners are always from 5 to 6:30 p.m. on the third Wednesday of every other month in the church's fellowship hall, 2235 Thompson Bridge Road in Gainesville.


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