Top Chef Dan Wade

by Adam Popescu

Every morning at 5:30 a.m., 71-year-old Dan Wade arrives at his underground kitchen in the basement of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Syracuse. In a workspace of equal size to a college dorm-room kitchen, Wade prepares large-scale meals, starting with 7:30 a.m. breakfast.

Doors open, and light floods the room as Wade goes though his morning routine: turning on fans, opening and checking coolers, mopping tables and floors. For the past 11 years Wade has worked as the head chef at a restaurant where the customers never pay and the wait staff are teenage volunteers.

“Working here has allowed me to shed the suit, tie and jacket I wore for so many years,” Wade said. “It opened my eyes to a lot of things. The difference between paying and non-paying customers is unbelievable. Ninety-five per cent of the people here need to be here. They say thank you, as opposed to people at a restaurant, where they don’t say thank you.”

This is the Samaritan Center’s soup kitchen where Wade is responsible for physically cooking and maintaining the center’s menu and foodstuffs, preparing hundreds of meals a day, and overseeing the staff. Those who stand in line for plates piled high with turkey, mashed potatoes and bread, are those with government assistance, and those without. Some jobless and homeless, some with jobs and homes, but not enough money to eat. People who need help.

“Our clients here are unique—it makes you feel good to realize it,” he explained. “You leave here every day with a smiling face. Not only the people who come here to eat, but the volunteers. We couldn’t do it without them.”

The Samaritan Center is run by a small, dedicated staff, with food coming mostly though private donation and the United Way’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) program. The staff of 7 is supplemented with volunteers from church groups, schools and other organizations, who assist daily.

“Yesterday he made goulash with left over pulled pork and hamburger meat, corn and pasta. When the smell comes up from the kitchen, we’re drooling. The meat was so tender you could cut use a plastic fork to cut it,” assistant director Anne Ferro said.

Before getting into the restaurant business, Wade learned structure, discipline and order in the Navy and as a Division 1A basketball head coach.

“Dan is one of those people who’s always there in a pinch,” Ferro said. “He has the demeanor of a coach, and the ability to zero in on what needs to be done.”

Every August, Wade throws a charity steak dinner for the Samaritan Center at Steve’s Restaurant in Syracuse. Last year, he raised over $2,000 for the center.

“Typical Dan,” Ferro said. “It’s not part of his job, but he organized the fundraiser, and was a bartender at the event.”

Wade also works on projects with the Temple Society of Concord, collaborating with the Temple’s former deputy executive director Lorraine Sher for the last 15 years.

“He has the amazing ability to take charge and make sure everything is running,” Sher said. “At the same time, he lets people take responsibility for themselves. He’s sensitive to the people who come. He’s not strict or stern, but strong. People respect him because he bends when he knows he has to.”

To support a family of four children, Wade got into the restaurant business in the 1960s, realizing he could make more money as a bartender than on an academic salary. In a career spanning more than 40 years, Wade spent 11 years as the food service director at St. Joseph’s Hospital, one year running a hotel’s kitchen, and a “couple years running the kitchen at the Westfield Country Club,” he said.

For the last 11 years, Wade has worked with a woman he calls his right hand, assistant operations manager Brenda Williams Mims, putting out out hot meals daily, and breakfast four days a week.

“He’s very direct, but thoughtful at the same time,” Mims said. “He likes to do things his way, and I like to do things my way, but we make it work. We want it done the right way.”

Wade has spent 11 years at the Samaritan center, 11 years working with Brenda, 11 years previously working as the food service director at St. Joseph’s Hospital, and has 11 grand-children, he said.

“I question myself a lot. Are you doing what you’re supposed to be doing? Fortunately, I can answer myself. My mission is to take care of the hungry and the homeless the best I can. Based on food, I can point them in the right direction. People say we spoil them, we feed them so well. If I didn’t feel this was spiritually important, this is something I wouldn’t do. I couldn’t do this job if I wasn’t spiritual.”

—Adam Popescu