Camillus House has a lot to be thankful for on Thanksgiving, particularly for having food service director Frank Ferrara around to prepare its biggest meal of the year. With a little help, he expects to serve up to 1,000 turkey dinners today for needy families and individuals across Miami.
But cooking isn't his only forte. Aside from managing a staff of cooks and volunteers, and coordinating nearly a thousand meals on a daily basis at the shelter, he is also a writer, a teacher, and a certified tennis instructor. Oh yeah, he's also a retired New York City police officer of 21 years.
"And I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up," he says jokingly.
At the suggestion of a friend and a bit of indecisiveness over what to study in college, he signed up with the NYPD. But 21 years of service was merely a segue into his true calling of serving the public on its most basic level.
After stepping down from police work and retiring with pension, he went back to school in 1986 to earn his degree in hotel and restaurant management. Consulting restaurant start-ups and managing upscale restaurants and lounges in New York City like Studio 54 and Stringfellows, and actor Michael Caine's Lincoln Road restaurant South Beach Brasserie, only brought him closer to joining Camillus House in 2005.
Why the dramatic transition into food service? Ferrara credits his mother and Italian roots for inspiring him.
"I love people; I love food. This is more meaningful to me, although being a policeman was important too," says Ferrara. "It's very stimulating and meaningful to work here. At Camillus House you really recognize what's important and you recognize that people here are just in transition and that serving food is just another form of love."
It's no surprise that the genuinely likable guy holds a rapport with some of Miami's finest chefs like Michelle Bernstein, Michael Schwartz, and Norman Van Aken, to name a few.
"Frank is the kind of guy you want to be friends with the moment you meet him," adds Camillus House marketing director Sam Gil.
Institutional food management isn't necessarily a far cry from his days in the restaurant industry, just a different pace. The constant turnover of volunteer staff and systematic training keeps Ferrara on his feet.
He also must rely on food donations, which, like this year, can come down to the wire.
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"This year we worried," explains Ferrara. "God does provide and this year God really cut it short, but God did provide. Amazingly, we get what we need, just like the turkeys this year, we got 'em!"
Over 120 turkeys were roasted in the ovens of the downtown Hyatt Regency with help from the Johnson & Wales University culinary arts program and will be served today with the rest of the fixings like stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie.
"Turkey is turkey," says Gil, "and we don't have the infrastructure and resources to make a gourmet meal, but we make it good."