Volunteers craft made-to-order omelets for special Christmas meal

New London — "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day."

It's an adage that's been repeated, and disputed, for numerous years.

But to those who help organize New London Breakfasts, it's a core philosophy.

For more than 10 years, Peter Roberts, James Stidfole and countless volunteers have worked to ensure a standard breakfast — cereal, pancakes, scrambled eggs, toast, sausage, bacon, the usual — is served up at the First Congregational Church's Parish Hall every weekday from 7 to 7:30 a.m.

"We literally, in all the years we've been doing this Monday through Friday, we have never missed a day," Stidfole said, reasoning that "You can't function on a daily basis if you are not well-fed."

But in 2012, when Christmas fell on a weekday for the first time in the last few years, Stidfole didn't want to do "just a normal breakfast."

After some scheming, Roberts, Stidfole and other organizers settled on made-to-order omelets, at which point Stidfole realized there was a problem.

"I'm really ugly at making omelets," he admitted with a laugh.

Enter Chris Leitkowski of Gaspar's and Jack Chaplin of Daddy Jack's.

In a steamy kitchen packed with volunteers, including Mayor Michael Passero, Leitkowski and Chaplin took turns crafting omelets for the fourth year in a row, Sherry Stidfole's holiday music adding a festive touch in the background.

Chaplin wouldn't admit it outright, but it seems omelets are a specialty of his — during his apprenticeship at a Hartford restaurant, he said, the place earned national recognition for its brunch.

He's even planning to put a step-by-step tutorial about his omelets up on the chaplinsrestaurant YouTube page in the near future.

As for working with a kitchen of volunteers, Chaplin said it's "awesome."

"Everybody pitches in," he said. "It seems like everybody has their routine year in and year out — they just get better at it."

Ron Kneeland, a volunteer of three years, can attest to that.

When he first joined the New London Breakfasts crew, he said, he didn't know much about cooking.

Now, at least in the world of breakfast, there's almost nothing he can't do, and he's gained friends along the way.

With a job waiting for him in South Carolina, though, the Christmas morning breakfast was one of Kneeland's last in New London.

"I'm going to miss the breakfast, big time," Kneeland said. "I really am."

This year, Roberts said, the number of volunteers — some of whom woke up at 4 a.m., according to Stidfole — was notable.

The influx came despite the downward trend in the number of meals New London Breakfasts is serving — a decline Roberts called "a good thing."

"We have worse problems than having too many volunteers," Roberts said, smiling.

Stidfole nodded in agreement, adding that at least half of the regular volunteers are economically challenged themselves.

New London Breakfasts, an organization without an executive board or any other such overhead, benefits from other benevolence, too.

Each week, Roberts and Stidfole said, places such as Kofkoff Egg Farms and Tony D's Restaurant donate dozens of eggs.

And members of Engaging Heaven Church and First Congregational Church — which share the First Congregational Church complex on Union Street — as well as the general public regularly put money toward the program.

Since its inception, Roberts said, the group has handed out more than 200,000 breakfasts, filling the meal void left by lunch- and dinner-serving soup kitchens and the like.

"I think people are genuinely appreciative of the efforts we do here," Roberts said.

Chaplin is certain they are.

Sitting at one of the hall's tables, Chaplin said he comes across folks throughout the year who remember he helped cook on Christmas and thank him.

It's that "connecting with the community" aspect that he loves — and the idea that he can help someone who may not be having the most joyous holiday season have a better one.

"Whatever anybody's situation is, they're never without worth," Chaplin said.

Moments later, a man who'd finished his meal and was leaving the building yelled, "Merry Christmas, all!"

"See?" Chaplin inquired. "Right there, that makes it. Sure, it's hard to get up and do it, but it gives so much meaning to the day of Christmas."

l.boyle@theday.com

Twitter: @LindsayABoyle

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