Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships Hosts Dinner Cooked by Drexel Alum
On Aug. 9, Chef Daniel Lee packed his SUV full to the brim with pasta, dessert and cooking supplies. Though Lee, owner and chef of Farina Pasta and Noodle , is now based in Center City, he was headed west to his former culinary stomping grounds to serve West Philly residents at the ’ Center for Neighborhood Partnerships Dornsife monthly dinner — though this time, he was the chef rather than a student volunteer.
The center has been hosting monthly community dinners since it opened in 2014, and until this summer, Executive Chef of Hospitality and Sports Management Rich Pepino and student or community volunteers had catered each one and prepped in the center’s kitchen. Lee, a 2018 graduate of Drexel University’s culinary program, was one of those student volunteers during his college career and helped prepare and serve the food.
With the support of Allen Riddick and Stephanie Garcia from Drexel’s Procurement department, the center began reaching out to local restaurants about catering summer meals to support local businesses and introduce residents to new flavors. Lee’s was the second local restaurant to cater for dinner, after Victoria’s Kitchen catered barbecue chicken, collard greens and macaroni and cheese in July. These two restaurants kick-started the monthly community dinner “Summer Restaurant Series.”
“When I got that email [asking me to do the August dinner], I was excited,” Lee said. “I didn’t know they were back to doing the Dornsife dinners [which had been halted during the COVID-19 pandemic] and I was really happy they decided to start going for local restaurants. I was really excited to be able to submit my menu and tell them what I could do, and then when they said they wanted to use my restaurant, I was ecstatic.”
When Lee was in school, he was against the idea of starting a restaurant. But when he graduated, he realized there weren’t any fast casual restaurants serving handmade pasta in Philadelphia. Luckily for the Dornsife Center, he, along with fellow culinary alum Joe Liang ’18, opened Farina Pasta and Noodle in 2020.
The Center began reaching out to local restaurants about catering summer meals and Dornsife Center Director John Kirby and the team developed a Request for Proposal for restaurants to submit their plan for 250 meals within a $3,000 budget. The RFP was properly developed for the August dinner, so along came Lee.
“One of the restaurants that had come highly recommended for us was Farina Pasta and Noodle,” Kirby said. “He had participated and volunteered at the community dinner, so he was familiar with how we did things here. We really liked the food he shared, and we thought it could be such a great story to talk about this student who’s graduated, who’s a student of color and a service veteran, who has now started his restaurant and is now bringing that food back to share with us. It just felt full circle in a great way.”
The idea for the Summer Restaurant Series came during the pandemic. For several months in 2020, the Dornsife Center organized dinner with a local bakery, Supreme Oasis Bakery and Deli (SOBAD), to get take-away meals ready for residents rather than the regular in-person dinners they’d always had that Pepino and students had catered.
“Chef Pepino was unable to use the (commercial) kitchen on campus, and local businesses were struggling, so we started working with SOBAD and we paid them to make the meals,” Kirby said. “People would pick them up and take some back to their neighbors, particularly seniors who weren’t able to come to the restaurant and get a dinner.”
Next, they worked with 12th Street Catering, a West Philly-based catering company for three months’ of dinners until Chef Pepino could come back and make the take-away dinners. Even now, about 110 meals are reserved for people who can’t come to the dinner in-person, but about 140 are reserved for on-site diners.
For Lee’s turn in the restaurant series, he kept the menu simple to make the preparation of 250 meals go as smoothly as possible. His experience with previous Dornsife dinners helped him with prep as he made Alfredo sauce with chicken and meat sauce with vegetables. He wanted people to see what he does at Farina so they know a good place to go next time they’re in Center City.
“That experience was just invaluable,” Lee said. “The hardest part was the to-go meals … The menu part was relatively easy. I’ve been running this restaurant for some time now, so I understand what the portion sizes need to be, and I know what people really like when it comes to large crowds.”
Once dinner was served, Lee got a chance to walk around, talk to residents and promote his restaurant. Coming back to the Drexel culinary world and seeing chefs and professors was like seeing old friends, and as for the community, Lee said he received positive reviews across the board.
“I definitely saw a few older people say, ‘This food is great,’ and they were saying to Lee, ‘Do you work there?’” Kirby said. “And he said, ‘I own it.’ There was this light on one woman’s face and she kind of jumped back like, ‘Oh, my goodness,’ and she gave him a big thumbs-up.”
Now that Farina Pasta and Noodle has been entered into Drexel’s supplier system used by University offices to work with external companies, it will be easier for another department to use the restaurant for potential catering in the future, Kirby said. Part of the goal is to get diverse businesses prepared to do business with the University. Of course, another goal is to introduce Philadelphians to new restaurants and new restaurants to more Philadelphians.
“These dinners in general are primarily about community building,” Kirby said. “The restaurant series is an idea that’s really been working out and we really liked it. We think we’re going to continue it next summer, so we’re looking forward to that and people were really excited about it.”