Rich Fluharty once cooked for a convent of 80 nuns. On his first day, they told him not to serve chocolate cake…because it was devil’s food.
He laughs at the joke. It was fun to see the nuns unwind a bit, even enjoying a drink a two when they had celebrations and birthday parties.
He’s also been a cook at a college. Those college students were his toughest customers. It’s hard to please such a diverse group of people, but he learned a lot of different ethnic foods while working at colleges.
He now teaches at BOCES. Some of his most popular courses are cake decorating, “Salads with a Twist,” “Hot Soups on a Cold Winter’s Night,” and “Cooking Around the World.”
Fluharty is also in charge to the Annunciation Family Volunteers (AFV), the church’s group of dedicated supporters who raise money and organize events for the parish community. He’s had formal education in cooking, but his training all began with his Grandma Jenny who taught him to cook.
“She used to bake a lot of Christmas cookies,” he recalls. “She had a dining room table that was twelve foot by six foot and that thing turned over two or three times with different batches of Christmas cookies. Tons of Christmas cookies!”
His grandmother taught him to bake. His grandfather, Sam, used to make homemade wine. At Christmas, they could give away the wine and cookies to friends and family. That example set by his family was an early inspiration that set him on a course of cooking and baking to feed others and to generously serve his community.
Fluharty has become well known in Westmoreland and Clark Mills for the quality and professionalism of the charity dinners he organizes at the Annunciation Church in Clark Mills. Everything about the dinners at the church, from the table service to the food itself is top notch for an affordable price. They draw a crowd and leave everyone satisfied and full.
“People come from all over, as far away as Old Forge, to share a meal together,” he says. “People who come become part of a community. We always get such good positive feedback.”
One of the reasons Fluharty contributes so much of his time to these endeavors is because they give people a chance to socialize, something he feels technology is inhibiting.
“I go table to table to meet the people that come to the dinners,” Fluharty says.
There is so much that he must think about in order to prepare for one of these meals. Their menus stay the same, but when it comes to projecting the amount of food it depends on the pre-sale tickets. All food that is left over goes to the Rescue Mission, but Fluharty has gotten pretty good at anticipating the need.
Table setting starts in the middle of the week. People come in the day before to peel vegetables. For the pork dinner, they peel 150 pounds of potatoes, make 80 pounds of cole slaw. For these dinners, his day begins at 6 am.
He is lucky to have a core of dedicated volunteers from the Annunciation Church. They assist him with every aspect of the meal preparation right down to dishwashing.
“We use real dishes,” Fluharty points out. “Real dishes, real coffee cups with our church logo, real silverware.”
On the day of these events Fluharty is often working until 4 pm doing the last bit of clean up. All this hard work is volunteered. He is dedicated to using his skills to serve the community through food.
His next project is a spaghetti dinner to raise money for the next Alzheimer’s Walk at the Brookdale Senior Living Facility in Clinton. This will be held on Saturday, March 30 from 4-7 p.m. at the Parish Hall of the Annunciation Church. For this meal he will be supervising preparation of spaghetti, meatballs, tossed salad, garlic bread, dessert, coffee, and tea. The price for the all-you-can-eat buffet will be only $10. There will also be entertainment, door prizes, and a 50/50 raffle.
“With that price, for an all-you-can-eat buffet, you can’t go wrong!” he says.
Fluharty is employed by Brookdale as their cook. He tries to find food that the residents will find comforting and evoking of pleasant memories. Some dishes that do this are macaroni and cheese, stewed tomatoes, meatloaf, and desserts. He also does cooking demonstrations once a month.
“The food can trigger memories,” he says. “I plan our menu so that the plates are colorful and bright and cheery.”
The spaghetti dinner is this weekend, but Fluharty is already planning ahead to his next event coming up a few weeks later.
On Sunday, April 14 he will be cooking up a Palm Sunday Breakfast Buffet from 9-11:30 a.m. in the Parish Hall. The price for adults will be $12 ($10 if you buy the tickets in advance), the price for children ages 6 to 12 will be $7 ($5 if you buy the tickets in advance.) Children under 5 are free.
There will be scrambled eggs with a toppings bar (ham, peppers, onions, cheese sauce,) corn beef hash, bacon, sausage, gravy and biscuits, home fries, homemade muffins and coffee cake, orange juice, coffee. There will be gluten-free options too.
“If you eat it for breakfast it’s on the menu,” Fluharty says.
We ended our interview with a tour of the gleaming stainless steel in the Annunciation Church’s Parish Hall kitchen. Fluharty slips on his chef’s coat and picks up a bowl.
“I wanted to do something where we’d bring people together and give back to the community,” Fluharty remarks on how his work with the Annunciation Family Volunteers is a perfect fit for him. “Bringing the community together to share a meal does that.”
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