Comfort cooking

Lucy’s Café makes itself at home in the Creston neighborhood.

Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name — and if you are in the Creston neighborhood, that place is Lucy’s Café. Dani Scott said her goal as head chef is to create a cafe that becomes a source of comfort for the community.

“I want to be like the bar in ‘Cheers’ where everybody knows everybody,” said Scott, who also is a business partner at Lucy’s Café. “If you’re having a bad day, I want Lucy’s to be the neighborhood spot where people come in, feel safe and have a good time.”

To Scott, restaurants are a way to spread happiness. Whether it is over a cozy cup of coffee or a tender chocolate chip cookie, she said memories often are made between friends and family across the table.

Because of this, sourcing local ingredients and cooking everything in-house remains a priority.

“That’s our pride and joy,” Scott said. “We want to do whatever we can to support everyone in our neighborhood.”

But Scott’s civic mindset reaches far past this scratch kitchen’s counter. During Michigan’s shutdown from the COVID-19, Scott felt a different kind of craving.

Even if the food and beverage industry halted its daily production amid the pandemic, she knew people still had to eat. So, Lucy’s Café not only delivered meals to frontline workers and baked goods for the homeless, but also created a free lunch program for the students of the Creston neighborhood throughout times of virtual learning.

Even though Scott struggled with a short staff at Lucy’s Café, she said the one thing she could control was her actions.

“Sometimes the only thing you can do is spread kindness and see where it goes from there,” Scott said. “I wanted to make someone else feel good during these dark times and hope for ripple effects.”

Soon enough, Lucy’s Café started to branch out to even more sections of the community.

“We knew we couldn’t get everyone, but we wanted to make sure to feed the groups that don’t always get enough appreciation for the work they do, such as the housekeeping staff at the hospitals,” she said.

Even prior to the pandemic, Scott’s positive presence can be seen through volunteering at Chef Jimmy Hill’s culinary program at Lakeland’s correctional facility. One of 11 around the state, Hill’s program teaches inmates the ins and outs of fine dining cuisine. There, Scott volunteers as a fellow mentor to the inmates, often assisting with food prep and showcasing demos of recipes.

Hands down, her favorite volunteer experience is the Christmas dinner Hill’s program puts on every year, where the whole class cooks a gourmet meal for not only the entire corrections staff, but also a guest list full of prominent Michigan chefs.

“It’s amazing to see, firsthand, people getting a second chance at life and succeeding,” Scott said. “Some of these cooks have more certifications than I do so it’s been incredible to watch the growth of each individual chef.”

Because many of the graduates upon release go on to have successful careers as chefs, Scott hopes to add a member from Hill’s program to her own staff one day.

“I’m a firm believer in loyalty,” she said. “If I can trust you, I got your back. Whether someone just got out of prison or not, everyone needs a little more hope and light shined on them.”

Volunteering for Hill’s program, Scott has been inspired to one day start her own program for young children. Though it is still in its early stages of ideation, Scott’s motivation is to work with the school system, teaching kids how to grow their own vegetables, learn the art of healthy cooking and have some fun while doing it.

“Cooking is good for the soul,” Scott said. “Especially now with technology, the only thing kids want to do is watch television and play video games. Why not show them how exciting it can be to get your hands all dirty, digging for vegetables?”

By learning cooking skills at a young age, Scott said she hopes they develop patience, discipline, and accountability.

“When cooking, you have to be honest with yourself,” Scott said. “Mistakes happen and you got to start over.

“But when you do learn this new skill, you prove to yourself you can do something you’ve never done before, which helps kids grow confidence in themselves.”

Though not all kids may realize it at first, cooking also requires a lot of teamwork.

“It can be like a sports game,” Scott said. “At Lucy’s Café, our mornings are some of the busiest in town. I call them ‘game days.’

“This is something you can’t do alone. You need the back of the house working with the front of the house to make sure every single order goes right, but when you work together and see that customer smile, it’s worth all the hustle.”

Part of the reason Scott has an interest in empowering kids to cook is because it reminds her of herself at a young age. Though she never appreciated her own budding talent, her cuisine was adored by others.

“My parents said I would cook all the time when I was younger and apparently, everything always tasted amazing,” she said. “But I never thought about being a chef as a career. It was just fun going to the store, buying each ingredient and stepping foot in the kitchen.

“For me, cooking is like another method of art.”

Even though it was not until college that Scott thought more seriously about cooking as a career, as soon as she enrolled in the Great Lakes Culinary Institute, she knew it was the path for her. It felt as though she was reuniting with an old flame.

“I fell in love. I became obsessed. Cooking became the way in which I can express myself,” Scott said. “It gives me purpose.”

While Scott has a deep admiration for cooking, it did not come without challenges along the way.

“This is a man’s industry,” Scott said. “Often, I’m the only woman in the kitchen. To this day, I’ll get a package and the delivery man will ask one of the male line cooks to sign for it, assuming he’s the head chef.”

This masculine environment is similar to what many other women chefs across the nation face. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women make up less than a quarter of chefs in the United States.

“Unfortunately, this is still a very real issue,” Scott said. “But luckily, I’ve found two women bakers to add to my team at Lucy’s Café. It’s been amazing to have both men and women working alongside me because it allows for a more well-rounded expertise in the kitchen.”

Seeing this as a hopeful sign for future generations, Scott advises other young girls fascinated with the art of cooking to never give up.

“Don’t let anyone tell you, you can’t do it,” Scott said. “Prove them wrong. I like to prove people wrong with my actions. I’ll just grab an onion, pull out a knife, and show them how fast I can cut.

“I’m five feet tall. No one expects me to be a beast in the kitchen, but I am.”

This story can be found in the November/December 2021 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox, subscribe here

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