Chris Wishart took it personally when his pastor announced that a survey ranked Winston-Salem “dead last” when it came to feeding the hungry.
After all, he was a chef. Food was his thing, his passion.
“It’s not that I was blind to suffering,” Wishart said. “But it made me think, this is what you do, this is what you’re supposed to do. What you’ve worked so hard for is not just to do dainty little things for a hundred dollars a plate.”
Wishart, who then owned the Mount Airy restaurant Trio, got in touch with the Feeding Friends Soup Kitchen run by the First Baptist Church and First Presbyterian Church.
“He made us an offer we couldn’t refuse,” said organizer Martha Morgan.
Once a month, Wishart wanted to prepare, deliver and pay for an entire meal.
“I was skeptical at first,” she said.
That was five years ago. He provided the Christmas meal that year, and has done so on the first Thursday of each month and each Christmas since.
“That’s a huge, huge donation — almost a fourth of the food we serve,” Morgan said. Morgan said the soup kitchen usually serves about 250 people.
Which is nothing new for a chef with Wishart’s experience.
The 44-year-old, who grew up in Burlington, started working in restaurants when he was 15.
“It gets in your blood,” he said.
He came up through the ranks, eventually apprenticing with a French chef in Greensboro.
A job as executive chef at Cross Creek Country Club brought Wishart to Mount Airy in 2005, where he worked until opening Trio in 2010.
“It was a fabulous experience,” he said about owning his own restaurant, but things weren’t always easy.
Wishart divorced in 2012, then the restaurant closed in May.
“It covered the range of emotions,” he said. “The people became the closest I knew. The customers didn’t feel like customers.”
Still working through the loss, “I am trying to learn what I need to learn from it,” he said. “A huge part of who I am is gone in a bad way, but that’s not what is important. That’s not who I am. I have my family and friends, and church. That’s who I am.”
A member of the First Presbyterian Church, Wishart lives in Cana, Virginia, and shares custody of his daughters Isabel, 9, and Lauren, 6.
Monday through Wednesday are spent with his daughters.
After dropping them off at school in Winston-Salem on Wednesdays, he heads to work at Olde Mill in Laurel Fork, Virginia, usually for a series of double shifts.
Juggling it all is tough but rewarding: “I love what I do. I love cooking; I love my family and my dogs.”
But he says he won’t quit his work with the soup kitchen.
“If I’m too busy for the soup kitchen, I need to look at other stuff in my life and change it.” he said.
“I’m still challenged, very much so, by what I do on a professional level. But on a personal level, my soul feels better after doing fundraisers and soup kitchens than it does after a seven-course tasting meal.”
People in the community seem to respond to Wishart’s attitude that food is more than just what’s on the plate.
“He’s very kind,” Morgan said. “Sometimes you think of artistic types, chefs, as being temperamental. Chris Wishart is one of the greatest guys I have ever known.”
David Green, who is vice president of human resources at Renfro Corporation, was a Trio regular.
“He’s genuine,” said Green. “That’s what sets him apart.”
Morgan and the other Feeding Friends organizers, Carole Kerley and Benny Brannock, recently honored Wishart during a First Baptist Church service and presented him with a plaque.
Wishart, who is shy by nature and tends to avoids crowds, admitted the experience was terrifying.
“But I was grateful,” he said. “I was humbled. I sent pictures to my mom. All those things feel good.”
Terri Flagg can be reached at [email protected] or 336-415-4734.