Saturday, April 20, 2024

Personal chef J.J. Gonson, left, seen cooking Jewish-French food with food writer Joan Nathan, is part of a group proposing a community kitchen for Cambridge. Its ideal spot: the long-empty Marino’s restaurant outside Porter Square. (Top photo: Jesse Costa/WBUR. Bottom photo: Marc Levy)

As a source of jobs, home for cooking classes and headquarters for food-based entrepreneurs, a local community kitchen proposal has gained a lot of fans. The project’s backers are winning even more with their ideal choice of real estate: the former Marino’s restaurant, now empty for some five years on Massachusetts Avenue in North Cambridge.

The site, 7,052 square feet assessed at $1.6 million, is even ideal in location — about 10 miles from the area’s only other community kitchen in Jamaica Plain, personal chef J.J. Gonson said. If that doesn’t seem very far for a food cart vendor or caterer to go, consider that the JP Community Kitchen also has a two-year waiting list, even with the Clover food truck moving recently to its own storefront in Harvard Square.

And there’s even another factor to consider.

“They don’t serve the occasional user at all. We’re looking to be a place where anybody can go,” Gonson said, noting the site’s possibilities for storage for farmers markets and food distribution as well as for a home canner or even herself: As the principal of Cuisine en Locale, she had 60 people to feed New Year’s Eve and could really have used a professional kitchen such as Marino’s. She cooked in the hosts’ home instead.

(For a glimpse of Gonson at work, click here to see her cooking Jewish-French food with food writer Joan Nathan last month on NPR.)

One potential user wants to work with bacon, which would require federal approval carried by no facility closer than New York, she said.

In short, the kitchen would be a foodie heaven.

Its promise and possibilities, including the jobs that would be created just to take care of and oversee a 24-hour facility, is likely why when Gonson and other backers called a public planning meeting nearly 100 people showed up in support. They’ve stuck with the project, too, donating time and skills for such needs as financial plans and graphic design. In an extraordinary boost, Gonson said, a local chef donated precious working equipment such as ranges and meat slicers. Too bad there was no place to store it.

But a post on the project’s blog solved that.

“Within a half-hour we had a warehouse space and somebody had offered to supply a truck” to move the equipment, said Gonson, who first suggested a kitchen at a June meeting on the local economy called by city councillor Leland Cheung. Several people in city government support the project, she said, noting a health inspector getting nearly constant calls from people looking to rent an industrial kitchen by the hour or day.

Significant support

Sarah Martin, who works in the development office at Boston Children’s Hospital, is another leader in the project who’s seen significant support among city officials and staff.

“When you have allies like that, it makes it easy to lay the groundwork,” Martin said.

But there’s a lot only the project planners can do, and that starts with filing for 501(c)3 nonprofit status and fundraising, both on the calendar for this month. A campaign intended to net $10,000 — as a way to organize major fundraising — was ready to go last month, Martin said, but put off so it didn’t “get lost in the shuffle” of every other end-of-the-year fundraiser.

“We’ve got a major groundswell of interest, and with the new year comes a redoubling of efforts,” she said.

The group has a very aggressive timeline that can be helped by buying a place that already has a kitchen, Gonson said. “We don’t want to spend eight years building a kitchen,” she said. “We want to spend one getting one.”

Michael Brandon, of the North Cambridge Stabilization Committee, gave an extremely preliminary endorsement Thursday after hearing a brief description.

“It sounds like the kind of use the Stabilization Committee would generally support,” Brandon said. There might be neighborhood worries over smoke and too little parking at Marino’s, he said, but the project “sounds likes a great match” for the site.

Getting a tenant would be good, he felt — not because of overblown fears of teens using the mostly exposed site as a meeting place, but because the building “is starting to show signs of its vacancy,” especially in the landscaping and fences in the back lot.

Gonson thought the restaurant was in great shape considering its long vacancy. While the backers are looking at other sites, it would be a shame to lose Marino’s, Gonson said.

“There’s not a lot of really big open spaces,” Gonson said. “Ones with kitchens are even fewer.”