Ruben Diaz is the kosher chef at Masbia Soup Kitchen Network. The network has three locations: two are in Brooklyn – Borough Park andFlatbush, and the third is located at 98-08 Queens Boulevard, Rego Park, which garners the heaviest volume of food insecure visitors served by the network.
Diaz was born and raised in Colombia and came to New York City while still a young man, like so many other immigrants who arrived in the city before him. He had very little financial resources and no relatives here who could help him find his way. A decade later, his occupation has become his life’s calling. While he pursues the American dream, he has helped so many others by making it his mission to see to it that they do not go away hungry.
If you would like to get involved or to find out more about Masbia of Rego Park, call 718-972-4446, ext. 207, or email [email protected].
QG: You are a native of Colombia. When did you arrive in New York City and why? Where in Queens do you now call home?
RD: I arrived in the US in 2005, at age 19, with only the $100 my father gave me. First I settled in Jackson Heights among its Colombian population, but I now live in Ozone Park with my wife.
QG: What is your background? How did you hear about the chef’s position at Masbia?
RD: Since I got to New York, I worked as a dishwasher, on construction jobs, painting houses, and as a waiter inManhattan. Masbia Queens Executive Director Alexander Rapaport offered me the job as soup kitchen coordinator in the Masbia Borough Park location, and after a couple of years, he saw my great interest in providing healthy and nutritious meals to the needy. So, he decided to put the organization’s kitchen into my hands. I attended a kosher culinary school for a year. That’s been very challenging to me, to learn all the kosher rules about food preparation and keeping a kosher kitchen. It took time, but I’ve mastered it now.
QG: What is so different, special even, about Masbia’s soup kitchen network compared to others in the metro area?
RD: What’s different about Masbia is that it is open to all. We don’t ask for identification or any other proof of need. We just require a person’s signature to get a meal. In Rego Park, we offer a person or a family healthy meals brought to their table by our volunteer waiters. We have restaurant-styled seating and décor. We want to send people home happy. They are dealing with enough problems if they come in to us for their dinner at the end of a long, tough day.
QG: The heaviest volume of people who are food insecure go through Masbia’s Rego Park dining facility. How many people have you served there per year?
RD: Three years ago in Rego Park, we served 300 meals per day. To compare our volume in recent years, in 2013, we served annually 182,662 people; in 2014, 507,984 people; and last year for 2015, we had 792,080 people come in for a nourishing, comforting dinner (we don’t serve breakfast or lunch). So you can see how the demand for our meals has risen dramatically during the tough economy.
Since its opening in March 2010, well over 100,000 individuals have also benefited from the weekly food pantry program. To the present day, Masbia of Queens has provided well over one million meals to the men, women and children who live in the surrounding neighborhoods. Masbia is a kosher-certified kitchen, but serves patrons of all denominations and ethnicities, and various celebrities and public officials have come to volunteer. Masbia mainly relies on private donations, with only 10 percent of its funds coming from the government.
QG: Are there many individuals or families who have come from outside the area, in your estimation?
RD: Our best estimate is that some 70 percent of our customers are from Rego Park, with about 30 percent from outside the area, including the borough of Brooklyn.
QG: Masbia in Queens serves its clientele at the table while providing a homey restaurant atmosphere, unlike most other soup kitchens. Why is it set up like a restaurant? Do you think this accounts for the heavy volume at Rego Park, besides your good cooking, of course?
RD: Masbia Rego
Park was planned to lift people’s spirits, get them out of a depression due to loss of work, or family problems, even problems at school that young people deal with nowadays. We serve all ages and backgrounds of people. Our meals offer them some temporary comfort in a welcoming atmosphere. We treat them as our guests, serve them a good dinner, and send them on their way to hopefully, better circumstances. We sometimes notice that we haven’t seen our “regulars” and sometimes hear from them personally that their lives have changed for the better, and they’re back to work, or in school preparing for the future, and how much we meant to them during the bad times.
QG: Does Masbia need lots of volunteers to help to serve meals each week, or especially at certain holidays?
RD: Yes, we couldn’t function without our great army of volunteers. There are only two staff members at Masbia in Rego Park, who are the soup kitchen coordinators. We have some 35-50 volunteers help us per day (we are closed on Fridays and Saturdays) and an average of 160 volunteers per week, who provide greatly needed and appreciated help with serving dinners, washing floors, washing dishes, pots, pans, cleaning and helping in the kitchen and dining rooms in big and little ways. On Thursdays, our customers come in and pick up their own dinner packages out of the 700 packages prepared by our volunteers to tide people over at the end of the week when we’re not open. We refuse to let them go hungry just because we’re closed. Each volunteer logs two hours a day, with all of our volunteers combined giving an average 400 hours per week of their time.
QG: When you have free time, where do you like to go in
RD: My wife and I really like the Rego Park and Forest Hills neighborhoods. We’ll go to the Queens Mall, to Jackson Heights for the Colombian food, to Flushing Meadows Corona Park, where I enjoy soccer, and we love to head out to Rockaway Beach in the summer.
This column was originated in July 2013 by Nicollette Barsamian.