Each morning climbing aboard her Ossining school bus, Jennifer Cook was playfully greeted with the question, “Hey Cook, what’s for dinner?” Years later, she’s still riding a school bus and still being asked what’s for dinner, but now she has an answer. Cook recently launched the FoodieBus, Inc., a farm-to-table culinary mobile experience that offers private, customized meals on a school bus, affectionately known as Loretta in honor of a “wonderful” benefactor, that’s been transformed into a restaurant. The concept is as fresh and original as the fare being served.
The Magic Properties of Food
Cook’s diverse resume boasts roles as owner of Chappaqua Wellness Center, volunteer firefighter with the New Castle Fire Department and private chef on movie sets for the likes of De Niro, Pacino and Pesci. Though seemingly unrelated, these experiences were cumulatively instrumental in inspiring the FoodieBus. Cook explains, “As a chef on movie sets, I catered to a wide range of palates from my food truck. I loved it and opened a wood fired brick oven pizza truck, which I made use of as a firefighter. When the Rockaways were devastated by Hurricane Sandy, I showed up with the pizza truck. By simply serving pizza, this community got the sense that they weren’t alone. I had an epiphany that food is magical. We all must eat and it’s therefore one of the true connectors we share. I’ve always strived to help others and wanted to foster this connection in a bigger, deeper and more meaningful scale.”
A Bespoke Dining Experience
To make this concept a reality, Cook had a very specific list of criteria. “I needed a dining area that functioned as a beautiful gathering space as well as a kitchen, storage space and bathroom,” she says, elaborating, “And, I’ve always had a thing for barns and find the farm-to-table movement so special, so I incorporated those elements as well.” Ultimately, Cook checked each of those boxes by making a few modifications to Loretta, a school bus she located in Wisconsin. Not only did she gut the bus, but she painted it mint green and removed its sides and roof, atop which she built a barn structure. The result is a dining experience that is anything but status quo. As she says, “The opportunities are endless. I’ve scoured Westchester and identified a host of idyllic locations. We can offer any type of food in any setting from Mexican on a beautiful lake to vegan on Fable farm to wine and cheese at the Rose Garden at Lyndhurst to dumplings in your own backyard. We host groups of friends as well as events meant to connect people who’ve never met in addition to offering culinary classes. It’s really been very exciting.”
The HELP Bus True to Cook’s passion for improving lives, the FoodieBus
transforms into a nonprofit, the HELP (Healing, Educating, Liberating People) Bus through a partnership with Feeding Westchester, an organization with the mission of ending hunger in Westchester County. Recipients waiting for Feeding Westchester’s food resources can queue for up to three hours. The HELP Bus is seizing this time as an opportunity to provide education in culinary and farming skills. Explaining her nonprofit’s mission, Cook says, “We’ll bring the bus to distribution points and offer demos and suggestions. Oftentimes, families are stretching these groceries for up to two weeks and we want to help them achieve that in a healthy way. We are also teaching culinary skills that can be leveraged so that people can have a background in handling food, empowering them to get work–there’s over 500 different culinary employment opportunities out there.”
As Cook provides culinary education, she is also gaining valuable lessons. She shares, “I’ll never complain waiting on line at a grocery store again. This experience completely debunks any stereotype of who these people are. People within our own communities are struggling. As someone who’s had my own struggles, I think it’s so important to take the opportunity to change someone’s life if you can, even if it’s for just one moment.”
Paving a New Path
Whether it’s called the FoodieBus, the HELP Bus or just Loretta, Cook is paving her own path with a roadmap that’s of her own design. She says, “I love creating dishes that aren’t textbook by taking everyday ingredients and pairing them in odd, yet delicious combinations. But, the excitement for me is not just in creating a unique dish. It’s in bringing different people with different passions and lifestyles together in peace and happiness at the table over food.” As Cook goes on, peppering the dialogue with phrases like sous-vide, portobello carpaccio, lemon-infused olive oil and microgreens, it’s clear that there will be no shortage of patrons eager to take a seat at her table.