written by: Bill Evans, WLOS January 13th 2023, 5:30 PM EST
WAYNESVILLE, N.C. (WLOS) — Neil Ravenna has led cooking teams at exclusive restaurants and resorts and was even the personal chef of a wealthy family. Now, after over 40 years of running high-end kitchens, he has found his home feeding the homeless.
“I have the privilege every day, of coming and feeding people that need to be fed. I like to do that,” said Ravenna, executive chef and food service director of Haywood Pathways Center in Waynesville.
Ravenna’s career path has taken him from his home state of Vermont, to stops in Tampa, Tuscaloosa (as the executive chef for the University of Alabama), Chicago, then back to Tampa. He and his wife Sienna moved to the Western North Carolina Mountains in 2015 when he accepted a position at the Everett Hotel and Bistro in Bryson City. Ravenna contacted Haywood Pathways Executive Director Mandy Haithcox in 2018 when he began to feel a tug in his heart. He says an inner voice told him, “You need to help. You need to help.”
Haithcox had a food services director then and did not need Ravenna’s help. But during the pandemic, that director left the center, and she brought Ravenna on board.
“We have 96 beds total so we have room for 32 men and 28 women, and up to 10 families,” said Haithcox. “On any given day we’re feeding three meals a day to all of those people, plus snacks, and that comes out to about 300 meals a day.”
The 300 meals for Pathways clients is only the start of the mission. Up to 200 more meals are delivered daily to Haywood County communities via The Holy Cow food truck.
“We decided we would take the food we would prepare, wholesome meals, then we will go out into the community and give it away,” explained Ravenna. “There’s no charge for anything. There’s no questions asked for anything.”
Ravenna’s yearning to lend a hand was nurtured by his parents, Albert and Deborah Ravenna. The family ran an 18-bed foster home for at-risk kids in Brattleboro, Vermont. “That’s how I was raised. Hardwired into my brothers Eric and Seth and myself, was to help people that needed help.”
The Holy Cow truck has a weekly schedule with stops from Fines Creek at the Tennessee border, to Cruso, Canton, Waynesville and other Haywood County communities. “We bring it to them, rather than them come to us.” Ravenna added, ”With the prices of gas and groceries, we can affect more people that way.”
Ravenna’s staff includes the husband and wife team of restaurant veterans Patrick and Heather Ducker, who take the truck out five days a week. “Patrick is an amazing grill person and knows his way around a kitchen.
Heather does all of the cold stuff –the desserts, the salads and helps Patrick.”
Haywood Pathways Center receives a delivery each weekday from the Waynesville Publix Market of donated food, plus staples from Manna Food Bank and even items from local restaurants. The day News 13 visited Pathways, Ravenna and the Duckers were busy seasoning and baking nearly 150 chicken thighs and drumsticks Bojangles had available as surplus.
“It’s kind of like a juggling act,” Ravenna said as he explained the menu planning on the fly each day. “We could be making lunch and all of the sudden an organization shows up – they may have had a conference yesterday and have all kinds of pans of food. You never know what is going to come through the door.” After the food is checked for safety, “We use it and feed as many people as we possibly can.”
Taking the meals out to the public is about building community, Haithcox explained. “It’s open to anyone and the food is good. It’s like going to a restaurant, so it’s for anyone who wants to come.”
Ravenna emphasized that all are welcome, and while donations for the meals are accepted, they are not required. “The only thing that makes our hearts full is gratitude. You don’t see any prices on anything. Everything is gratis,” he said. “We’re just here to feed folks that need to be fed.”