By Gina Rizza

As far back as anyone can remember, Warm Heart has had Thursday night volunteer dinners. Each volunteer has a turn making dinner for all the other volunteers, Michael and Evelind, and whoever else happens to be around. When I first heard about the dinners I thought, “Yes, that will be fun!”  But then I started hearing the horror stories.

“It took Jenn and Laura four hours to bake an apple crumble in the oven.”

“It becomes very expensive when you have to buy imported foods.”

“The kitchen is very limited. Have you seen it?”

Despite all the warnings, I was determined to impress everybody. I wanted to make something that shows where I’m from so the obvious thing was to cook what I know best:
Italian food. I had recently learned from my grandmother how to make homemade cavatelli pasta but I had never tried to make it on my own.So where better than in the middle of rural Thailand with limited resources?

I was lucky that my housemate Anna agreed to team up with me to share costs. Together we designed a menu that went really well together. We decided on quiche, cavatelli with tomato sauce and separate meatballs, Caesar salad, garlic bread and chocolate-covered fruit.  We were lucky that an experienced volunteer guided our shopping schedule.  He told us what we could and couldn’t get in Phrao, our closest shopping town.  

For everything else, Anna and I scoured the overwhelming and glitzy Central Festival supermarket in Chiang Mai with our list of special ingredients.  

What is Chinese garlic?  

There’s no parsley?  

No Jersey tomatoes like the ones I’m used to using at home?  

I was starting to think it’d be a miracle if we could pull this off.The total supermarket bill came out to about 4,000 baht or well over $100. “It’s worth it, it’s worth
it,” we kept repeating.

In downtown Phrao we shopped for the remaining ingredients.  Anna and I are both vegetarians but had to cook for the meat eaters.  Anna gets sick by the look of raw meat so I
had to brave it on my own at the local butcher.  I translated the word “beef” and pointed to what I wanted.  I was proud of myself but in the end I’m almost positive we ended up with pork meatballs.  The day before our meal, Anna and I started making the pasta.  We spent almost three hours hand rolling the cavatelli in our poorly lit, dingy, little kitchen.  

“It’s worth it. It’s worth it,” we laughed.

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Homemade cavatelli

I think every volunteer has at least a moment of panic the day they’re planning to prepare food for roughly 15 people.  Anna started panicking as soon as we began cooking but I somehow remained calm, cool, and collected. Something Michael had said earlier in the week stood out in my mind.  We talked about a large project and at the end of our conversation, he told me that he had faith I could do it.

I told him it was refreshing to hear that from a boss and he said he always had the same attitude with all the volunteers. “I have no idea if they can do it or not. I just tell them to do it and trust them,” he laughed.

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A crowded kitchen of cooks – me, Anna and Nick

When we finally sat down to eat, I felt exhausted, hysterical and rewarded at the same time. Of course everybody wolfed down our food and thanked us profusely for our efforts. We had way too much cavatelli but it got eaten the next day by the kids.  Some of the volunteers had never had freshly made sauce or homemade pasta before and some had never even heard of quiche. I’m grateful to have been able to share something from my home and offer a new experience.

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A volunteer’s plate offood

According to long-time volunteers, there has never been a bad volunteer meal. Once you have your menu set in your mind, don’t let anything stop you from creating it.  If
there are hurdles – which there will be – have a Plan B ready. Becoming successful at Warm Heart is about finding the balance between the things you have control over and the things you don’t.  It’s about trying in the greatest way you know possible and preparing for a bit of embarrassment and panic.  Your Warm Heart family will support you along
the way.

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The Warm Heart family meal

Ever since I had that conversation with Michael about how he trusts the volunteers, I’ve held myself to higher standards.  If nothing else, Michael has taught me to aim big and fail at a few things but pull off all the rest.  It sounds like a cliché but you never know what you are capable of until you give yourself the chance.  Michael and Evelind give you that chance by telling you “Try this.”

Now I’m just talking about dinner for 15 but trust me, it applies to everything you will do at Warm Heart.

For more on my adventures, check out my personal blog at Ginasgeography

(Gina Rizza recently completed her stay at Warm Heart)