Daytonian of the Week: Chef starts bagged lunch program to help feed kids during coronavirus pandemic

On what seems like day 198 of your self-quarantine (or, for those who still have to report to work, day 198 of risking your health for the good of others — we thank you), focusing on the more positive aspects of this coronavirus pandemic can seem like a tricky task. Luckily, our Daytonian of the Week is here to remind us all of the power of positivity.

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Amid the chaos of last week, chef, manager, writer and philanthropist Aimee Thomes Plesa went to work. From the comfort of her own home, Plesa utilized her own skills as a chef to create a bagged lunch program for those children who may be going hungry during this difficult time. Currently, No Child Hungry is taking your donations to help create hundreds of bagged lunches for the needy throughout the Dayton area.

For our part, at least, we want to take a moment to thank the helpers — like Plesa — who are doing everything they can to ensure that all Daytonians are healthy and happy. In this trying time, we tip our hats to the selfless, the brave and the kind.

This is how Plesa is helping Daytonians during the coronavirus pandemic — with meaningful advice to those in the service industry and anyone else feeling a bit lost.

Want to do your part to ensure that all hungry children in the Dayton area receive a bagged lunch from Plesa? Give a donation of any size to No Child Hungry's Facebook page. If you, or someone you know, would benefit from a bagged lunch, contact Plesa through the Facebook page.

Tell us about your background. What has led you to this point in your career?

I have been in and out of professional kitchens for most of my life, 34 years to be exact. My first job was at the K&W in Springboro when I was 14 and my first management position was at Hot Sam’s at the Dayton Mall when I was 15. I would say my work history is fairly typical. I flip-flopped between restaurant and retail jobs through college and my early adult years, but most of my time was spent in the kitchen. After the birth of my twin daughters in 2005 and my younger son in 2006, I began to realize that cooking was my calling and I have been at it steadily ever since. My first big “break” came when I was hired as the sous chef at Cobblestone Cafe in Waynesville at a very turbulent point in my life and I haven’t looked back since!

Explain what you are doing to help those affected by the coronavirus pandemic. 

When I heard that schools were being closed for three weeks, my heart sank for those parents who struggle to make ends meet from week to week. I've been there and still find myself struggling at times. I wanted to step up and do something, anything, to help and I realized my talents were best suited for creating a bagged lunch program. I made a couple of posts on Facebook to let people know that I was accepting donations of lunch-appropriate items and would be putting together and distributing brown bag lunches for anyone who needed additional help feeding their children through this difficult time. From that original idea, No Child Hungry, Dayton Ohio was born. It is my plan to continue helping those in need through this pandemic and beyond by creating a foundation to help children. It breaks my heart that in this day and age — catastrophe or not — that children are going without food in our country.

Why did you feel the need to step up in this time of need?

I have been that parent struggling to feed their child. I have been the parent who has to rely on food stamps, food pantries and the school lunch program to stretch those precious few grocery dollars. There is no worse feeling in the world than having to rely on the government and the kindness of strangers to get by day to day and be judged by others for doing so. It is my hope to help ease some of the burden facing these families with no judgment whatsoever.

What are other ways that Daytonians can help out those in the service industry throughout this pandemic?

If you are looking for ways to help those of us in the service industry right now, I suggest eating local as much as your budget allows. So many small businesses will not survive this without the communities stepping up and supporting them. Place that order for carryout or delivery, be active in your community groups and suggest new places to patronize. Tip well! Many people don’t think to tip on carryout orders or to tip the kitchen crews that make the food. A little generosity goes a long way! And purchase gift cards and certificates. This helps put vital money directly back into struggling businesses when we need it most. You can use them once things get back to normal, but it helps keep us afloat until that day arrives.

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How are you spending your time outside of Bargos? Has it been difficult to handle the constant twists and turns of the pandemic and its effect on restaurants? 

Well, our owners made the decision to close after end of business last Friday to take advantage of this sudden downturn to make some changes to the store, so I suddenly found myself with A LOT of free time. Probably too much free time, to be honest *laughs*.

In addition to running the kitchen at Bargos, I also have my own side hustle. Two, actually. I own and operate Thyme After Thyme Gourmet, a local home-based bakery and candy business and Tastes of the Tri-State, an online food publication that focuses on local food. With Easter coming up, I will be trying to grow my sales and offering some new products for the holiday. In addition to that, I see a lot of writing in my future. I am focusing on Easter-related recipes right now and just created a new series for the blog called "Quarantine Chopped." I am challenging people to send me four random ingredients from their pantry, fridge and freezer and I am crafting recipes for them. My Mondays and Tuesdays will be dedicated to bagging and distributing lunches for the bagged lunch program for as long as I have the donations to sustain it.

What would your advice be to others who work in restaurants and bars who are facing possible unemployment or uncertainty about the direction of their career?

To my fellow industry people, I offer three pieces of advice:

1. Keep your sense of humor about you. You’re going to need it as this continues to drag on.

2. Do what we in this industry do best — don’t give up. So many of us, myself included, are having a very difficult time trying to apply for unemployment or they don’t qualify. I have been trying for nine days and still haven’t been able to apply because of a glitch in the system. There are numerous places hiring right now, fill out those applications and keep those interviews! If you have a talent that lies outside of the industry, try to keep yourself afloat doing that. Thankfully, I’m a word nerd, so I will be taking on as many writing assignments as I can find.

3. Remember, you are setting an example. Show your children, if you are a parent, and staff what you are made of. We in the industry as a whole have a reputation of having destructive tendencies. Don’t fall down the rabbit hole of drugs and alcohol — come out of this stronger and better than ever!

What can other chefs like yourself do while stuck at home? 

There are a number of things we can do with all of this downtime, depending on where your interests and talents align. If a chef doesn’t currently have a blog, now is the perfect time to start one! I have had several people suggest I start making YouTube videos and create cooking tutorials, but I’m hesitant to do that because I am not very comfortable being “on camera.” eBooks are another great option for staying busy and they may help generate some income. It’s also a good time to consider revamping your menu. There’s plenty of time to look over your sales history and dump the slow-moving items and develop something new and exciting.

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What inspires you about Dayton?

Our resiliency! The last year has not been kind to Dayton, yet somehow we continue to make it through difficult times and come out stronger than before. Watching everyone stand together in the face of the Klan “rally,” then stepping up to help our neighbors in the aftermath of the tornadoes was amazing to see. And watching everyone come together after the Oregon District shooting…I lost a friend that night and still struggle with it, but everywhere I turn, someone is there to share a tear, a hug, a kind word of compassion.

What are your favorite places to grab a bite to eat in Dayton? 

• Mack’s Tavern in Centerville. Her Hen Zinger Mac & Cheese and Twisted Chicken Pot Pie Pizza are always on point and so craveable.

• Cobblestone Cafe in Waynesville. There is always something new and unique to try and the atmosphere is so comforting. It’s the perfect place to linger and unwind.

• Mamma DiSalvo’s in Kettering. Hands down the best Italian food in the Dayton area. There’s a reason they keep winning Best Italian Food in Dayton.

• OinkADoodleMoo. They make my favorite pulled pork. And that corn pudding! It’s to die for.

Favorite under-the-radar restaurant? 

Big Sky Bread Company in Kettering has been a favorite place of mine for 20 years. Everything they serve is wonderful. And the owners are some of the best people in the industry! I highly recommend the peanut butter chocolate chip cookies and challah bread to everyone.

What sort of exciting things do you see for yourself professionally in the next five years? 

Well, before all of this insanity hit, I was looking at a potential location in the heart of Centerville for opening my cafe/bakery. Hopefully it is still available when we all come out of this. If not, I will keep searching. There’s nothing I want more than to open my place. As I work towards that, I am hoping to find a few locations where I can sell some of my sweets — especially my craft beer cake ball line. They are too unique and too yummy to not be flying off someone’s shelves.

Any final words of wisdom to those struggling in this trying time? 

If you need help, ask for it. We are all in this together and now is not the time to let stubborn pride get in your way.

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