Most days of the week, Paul Ciardiello is the new car director and general sales manager for Manly Honda in Santa Rosa, California. But on Mondays he’s Chef Paul at nearby Redwood Gospel Mission cooking up savory meals for more than 350 homeless individuals and recovering addicts.
For Ciardiello, second from left in photo, his volunteer work at the mission is part atonement, a slice of “I’ve been there too,” and a unique opportunity to practice his first love, cooking for others. Ciardiello is more than Chef Paul to the mission’s diners. He’s also a skilled, highly rated former professional chef who happened to walk into a Manly Auto Group dealership a few years ago to buy a car.
“They must have liked something I said or how I presented myself, because out of the blue they offered me a job,” Ciardiello recalled recently, still sounding astounded at the chance offer and opportunity put before him. “I said no, I’m a chef. I got into my car and drove to the new restaurant I was to open in three weeks.”
He grew up in the restaurant business. A dishwasher at 13, he spent 22 years working in restaurant kitchens. “I had good reviews by the food critics, and then a few years ago I came from Connecticut to Santa Rosa to work for noted celebrity chef Michael Chiarello, who like me, specializes in Italian-influenced California cuisine.”
Some say God’s hands in events is easier to see in the rearview mirror. Ciardiello is one. “I arrived at the restaurant and was told by the owners we weren’t opening, that I wasn’t to order the $35,000 in wine, that the investment money had been lost in a Ponzi scheme. I was out of work,” Ciardiello said.
He drove back to Manly and asked if the offer was still good. Along the way, he noticed three poorly clothed individuals sharing one cup of coffee on a particular cold Sonoma County winter morning. That experience led to his researching the Internet for organizations giving back to and servicing the Santa Rosa community. His search took him to Redwood Gospel Mission.
“I’d been there, I’d been homeless. When I contacted the Mission they asked me why I wanted to volunteer, to come in and cook for them, and I told them, “A car guy has to get to heaven too, but that mostly I have been blessed and didn’t want to take that fortune for granted,” he said.
Matt Sutton, far left in photo, is Food Service Manager for the Mission, and supervises Paul. “He’s about the longest serving volunteer here,” he said. “The residents count on him and come up with recipes to stump him. Paul’s actions speak volumes and he ministers to our guests by them. He is consistent and reliable, and they know that he really cares.”
Recalling walking into Manly’s that day, Ciardiello said, “There are not many industries where an individual can walk in at 35 years old and within 10 years later have done what I’ve been given the opportunities here,” he said. “It is mind boggling to think how I went from working 90 hours a week for the pay I received to now working fewer hours, with less stress, more income and time for my family. I got lucky, and I know it.”
Ciardiello works a four-hour shift at the mission every Monday. With a sous chef and other help from residents of the Mission’s 12-step program, he prepares meals for the Mission’s homeless population, its addiction recovery residents, and for an affiliated nearby women’s shelter.
He works with whatever food products are available. Much of it is donated. FoodNetwork Star Guy Fieri films his Guy’s Grocery Games nearby and donates show food products to the Mission.
The Mission feeds upwards of 300 individuals daily. Mission residents and especially Ciardiello’s kitchen crew can’t wait for him to arrive to assemble and prepare the meal they’d devised for him that day. As he does, he teaches food safety, sanitation and meal preparation basics. By the time most of his kitchen crew have completed their six-to-12-month recovery program, they’ve also earned a certificate in food service. Then a new inbound recovery crew rotates in and, as Ciardiello said, he starts again with the basics, “This is how you chop an onion...”
“Guys here in recovery or those just out of prison tell me that their day goes by much quicker and enjoyable on the day they’re with me in the kitchen,” Ciardiello said. “We engage in conversations about suffering, how Jesus suffered, and how our emotions are so raw and the hunger for healing so intense. I love these kinds of conversations, and one reason I love being there is to hear those kinds of redemption stories.”
Jim Leman writes about automotive retail operations from Grayslake, IL. He too works with the homeless and spends his Wednesday mornings volunteering at a food pantry. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org