John Romano volunteering in the Wayside Kitchen

 

I grew up around food. My family lived on Munjoy Hill and my grandparents owned a neighborhood grocery store. This is where I had my first job, sorting the glass returnable bottles. I went to culinary school and my entire career was at Maine Medical Center in the Nutrition Department, making food for people. Now that I am retired, I volunteer at Wayside in the kitchen working with volunteers to prepare food for the community meals. Not to mention, I’m Italian American and we have a love affair with food. Over the years, between my family and the executive chefs and managers I’ve worked for, I’ve had a lot of influences and people whom I respect. Someone who particularly sticks out though is Eleanor Gee, or Mrs. Gee as we called her, the woman who hired me when I was 15 at Maine Medical Center, where I ended up working for 53 years.

I grew up in Portland on Munjoy Hill. My grandparents owned a grocery store called DiBiase’s on the North side of Munjoy Hill. It was named after my grandfather and my grandmother primarily ran it. I spent a lot of time in this store around food and helping around the store was my first job. It was a fun place to grow up. We didn’t have much, but we always ate.

When I was a little older, my godfather who was Don Valley’s brother at Valley Steakhouse got me a job there. I lasted one day. I had a godmother that was the hostess at The Pagoda, one of the only Chinese restaurants in Portland at the time, and she got me a job there washing dishes and peeling and taking the string out of celery if can you believe that. I lasted about three days there. Just by chance my older brother had gotten a job at Mercy Hospital and when I was old enough, I went to work in the Nutrition Department there. It was the first job I got fired from. I think I was 15. I can’t even remember what happened. The director of what they called Personnel in those days, but I guess you’d call it Human Resources now, he said to me “my wife’s in charge of the Nutrition Department at Maine Med, go up and see her.” So, I went up and Mrs. Gee hired me. She was phenomenal. She was all about food. Her whole job was to feed people.

When I started at Maine Med, I was doing things like peeling the carrots and washing the floors. Then one day they asked me if I wanted to cook. My entire career evolved from there. It was something I liked to do so I decided to go to culinary school at what is now Southern Maine Community College, although I finished at University of Southern Maine. In order to graduate I needed to complete a summer internship. That was one of the best summers of my life. I was 18 and was working as a baker at a summer resort, Sebasco Estates in Phippsburg, outside of Bath. It was right on the ocean and even had a saltwater pool. I guess it had been around for a long, long time. They put our pictures out in the dining room foyer telling guests where we all went to school, I met a lot of other college students, they even encouraged us to hang around the pool and swim with the guests. It was just that kind of atmosphere. I worked for a baker who taught me a lot and I also learned a lot about customer service. How I hated to see that summer end. That was one of the best experiences of my life going up to that camp. To this day, when I hear certain songs on the radio, it reminds me of that summer.

While I was in school, I continued to work part time for the Nutrition Department and after I graduated, they hired me back full-time. In a hospital, patients already have their immune systems compromised so we had to be very careful about what we were serving. So, I got to work on writing menus, and I got to work with dieticians. Eventually when they were doing a search for a director, I became interim director while they searched. I’ve also been Assistant Director and in charge of production. I eventually got promoted to Executive Chef, then to manager, and then they took me off the floor and I got an office job. My job required thinking in terms of healthy eating. That was really an interesting part of the business, it never occurred to me that food could be dangerous. On the other side of things, 75% of my meals were for non-patients. We prepared food for the cafeteria, which is such an important place in a hospital. It is a common ground. I always liked the cafeteria because people could enjoy food there together.

I was very fortunate at the beginning to have had people like Mrs. Gee, other former directors and Ford Small, the chef I learned under. Eleanor Gee ran the Nutrition Department. She was an amazing lady. No one had a bad thing to say about her. This woman did everything. She ordered, wrote out the schedule, and she fed people. As kids we used to call her Gee Balls and she called me The Kitchen Boy. What I understood was during WWII her and chef Ford were the only two left in the kitchen and that’s how they got the positions because all the other cooks were drafted. Mrs. Gee was a Yankee and was all about food. She made all the New England dishes that people liked. Everything was from scratch and everything was local and fresh. That was something that always inspired me. I can remember going in and snapping fresh beans, cooking and mashing potatoes. During strawberry season we would always serve strawberry shortcake. We even made our own orange juice. She’d make meals like pot roast, roast beef with gravy made from the pan, real comfort food. She was very traditional. On Saturday and Sundays there would be a big lunch and a small supper. Everyone eating her food were like her customers and she was there to please. She was very thoughtful. On holidays she would give a little bag of nuts or hard candy on your tray. I was at the hospital recently and ended up eating in the cafeteria. They were serving meatloaf and it was still Mrs. Gee’s meatloaf recipe after 40 some years. Same recipe she used and the same one I used. Unfortunately, after she retired, she got Alzheimer's. But these are some of the memories I have of her and lessons I kept with me when I moved up the ladder after she was gone.

At some point, we started donating unserved food to Wayside’s Food Rescue program. We also gave Wayside some old equipment. Wayside was so reliable. If they couldn’t use whatever we gave them, they found somebody that would. That is when I also got connected to the Board. I also started volunteering Wednesday afternoons in the kitchen with a weekly volunteer group as a cooking-for-crowds supervisor of sorts. That keeps me busy and keeps my mind and body going. I get to talk and spend time with these people every week. It’s great what they are doing at the Westbrook Community Center serving these meals and how excited they are about it. I always get a full report on last week’s meal and how it went. Food plays such an important role in everybody’s life because everybody eats. They always compliment me, but they are really the ones that get it done. Coming into the Wayside kitchen was like riding a bicycle. I even found some of my old equipment and still working! And I get to cook for people which is what my entire life has been about and is what I truly love doing.