“I’ll call you on my long drive to Indiana,” Chef Suzy DeYoung emails me. “A grocery store is donating 17 cases of sweet potatoes and they all need to be picked up today.”
DeYoung, the executive director and founder of La Soupe, has built a multitasking nonprofit that rescues groceries — which would otherwise be trashed — from supermarkets and restaurants, and then cooks them into nutritious, epicurean meals for the hungry. In just one day, her team makes more than one hundred gallons of soup; in a week, they rescue more than three tons of perishables. That’s more than 3,000 generous portions that they then deliver to local schools and churches that exist in food deserts in the Cincinnati area.
Since its foundation in 2014, La Soupe and its dozens of Cincinnati chefs-volunteers have saved more than a million pounds of food from landfills and provided more than a half a million meals for the hungry. They’re pretty busy.
So, I write back: “That’s absolutely okay. Talk to you soon!” And I think that of course, the founder of an extraordinarily resourceful, multi-tasking non-profit that tackles food waste and hunger at once would want to chat while on the road to rescue more food.
Good food is just a part of DeYoung’s DNA — her father, in fact, was a Michelin-starred chef at Cincinnati’s La Maisonette, North America’s most highly rated restaurant before it recently closed its doors. And although her father died young, her French-foodie heritage is inherent to her heritage — “it’s a genetic disorder,” she teases. After working at restaurants both local and abroad, and then finally settling down with her family in Cincinnati, she opened a robust catering business with her sister, where she worked for two decades.
“For years I was writing ‘soup,’” DeYoung shares when we finally get on the phone. “Oh?” I respond clumsily — confused, I wondered if I misheard or failed to catch some profound metaphor.
“No, literally — I was constantly writing S-O-U-P. At the time, I thought I was writing an acronym for ‘share our unique passion’ and it just stuck with me.” She explained that she would mindlessly doodle this acronym. It wasn’t until later that it dawned on her what this meant: she had been subconsciously thinking about the idea of Le Soup for more than 20 years before it actually launched. She felt as if something greater than her was reminding her of her own dreams.
Yet she was so busy. She was still running her catering business with her sister, and she had a growing family with her husband. “I loved my life, but there was always something missing,” she explains. So she would write out S-O-U-P more, and then meditate on the idea. “It was a calling. It started out as a whisper, then a murmur, and then a shout,” she explains.
In an attempt to qualm this voice, she would start projects. She would volunteer to cook for people with cancer, and even started a food-related charity. “Yet I didn’t have enough know-how or internal push to really see it through,” she says. “And I didn’t really have enough energy.”
Yet as the years passed by and her children got older, she knew that it was time to put S-O-U-P into action. The whispers were turning into shouts. “They were saying: JUST TRY, JUST TRY,” she says.
“The hardest part was that I knew what I had to do… but I had to do it in a way that would end my sister’s (work) life as she knew it,” she explains. “I was so unclear how I would make this work, I had to do this on my own. I couldn’t have a finger in both pots. But, yeah, telling her was the hardest part.”
So once she left her sister to run the catering business alone, DeYoung started Le Soupe. “There wasn’t a business plan. Just a passion.”
A series of God-winks
“Once I started putting my vision toward something, every single word (I read) reminded me of what I was doing,” she says. “So, I saw food waste everywhere.”
She found a good starting point in her hometown: “Cincinnati has such a miserable ranking for childhood poverty and hunger. And no politician could fix this. Food is handled by chefs.”
Having only a background in running her own catering business, DeYoung initially adopted a business model similar to Toms: you buy a bowl soup, we’ll donate a bowl of soup. But she soon found that this approach wasn’t working out nearly as well as she had hoped. “I realized, I’m either going to fail miserably in something that I’ve thought about 25 years … or I’ve got to change it up,” she explains.
This was when her first volunteer fell into her lap — a person who just so happened to know all about operating a non-profit organization. And it only was the beginning. “All these little God-winks keep happening. The right people keep on showing up at my door at the right time.”
For instance, DeYoung needed someone with marketing know-how — suddenly, a volunteer appeared. When she needed help better balancing her books, a friend from high school with an MBA contacted her out of the blue.
“Literally, everybody who is a part of the organization at this point has had a calling,” she explains. “People kept on showing up — and I said, ‘I can’t pay you!’ — and they kept showing up anyway. So I tell people, lead with passion. And the people will fall into place.”
Travesty becomes opportunity
What really pushed Le Soupe to the next level was initially caused by a travesty. “I smashed my finger in a machine and they told me I couldn’t work for two months,” DeYoung shares. “And of course, as luck would have it, that was the day we had the longest haul of rescued produce ever: 16,000 pounds.”
Desperate for help, she leveraged her network of restaurateurs and chefs across the city: “Hey, all chef-friends — this is what I’m doing now, in case you don’t know,” she said. “Also, I pulverized my finger. I need help.”
The response was absolutely overwhelming. Twenty-five chefs offered to volunteer their time — or the time of their staff — and the produce was saved, the food was made. In particular, the junior chefs loved the opportunity. It was a way for them to get creative and leverage their talents in an atmosphere that didn’t have the politics or hierarchy of a regular kitchen.
The incredible part? They all wanted to do it again, which is how La Soupe added partner organizations to expand its reach, magnitude, and connections. It was clear that she had come a long way from doodling. DeYoung could feel that the organization was so much larger than her now — it was becoming a movement.
And the more people who work with and are fed by Le Soupe, the more eyes are opened to the wasteful patterns of consumption around us — and how we can reclaim that waste in a mission to end hunger. “Now they’re seeing what I’m seeing,” DeYoung explains.
Though the amount of waste and the magnitude of hunger is immense, the volunteers are experiencing a lot of joy in tackling this problem together. It’s the kind of joy wrought only when one is truly following a call. Every new shipment brings in abundance and opportunity — DeYoung transforms it into gourmet food and contagious joy.
“This is the part that chefs love — is working with what you got,” she says. “The possibilities are endless.”