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Filling Empty Bowls

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As a ceramics student at Humboldt State University in the late 1980s, Mark Campbell made ends meet by taking off his clay-spattered apron and putting on a new one to cook in the kitchens of local restaurants. "I graduated from HSU with an art degree to become a full-time cook," he says. That career carried him through 28 years and a roster of restaurants, from Humboldt Brewing Co. to Crawdaddy's to Chin Chin's to the Eureka Inn. For about half that time, he was also working shifts at St. Vincent de Paul's free dining facility "during the day and trading hats and cooking for the rich people at night."

Having traded the heat of the kitchen for the heat of the kiln, Campbell has retired from the restaurant business and devoted himself once again to ceramics. But he still volunteers for weekly shifts at the St. Vincent de Paul kitchen, cooking free meals for anyone who wants one. On June 1 at 5:30 p.m., his passions for cooking, feeding the hungry and ceramic art will merge with the Empty Bowls fundraiser benefiting the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Facility at the Jefferson Community Center in Eureka. There, attendees will graze soups from the kitchens of 20 local restaurants with bread from local bakeries ($25, $40 for two, $45 for a family, cash or check only) while browsing a sale with hundreds of handmade ceramic bowls donated by artists.

Empty Bowls is a grassroots fundraising effort pairing the work of ceramic artists with soup at events that support feeding the hungry locally and around the world. The first riff on the concept Campbell took part in was 20 years ago at the Arcata Endeavor's kitchen. There, as in the original setup, the soup and bowl were paid for with the price of admission. The Endeavor hosted three annual events before its closure.

The June 1 Empty Bowls event is a broader one, boasting a long list of participants promising a varied, if as yet unannounced, menu: Humboldt Bay Bistro, Brett's Pizzeria, Bayfront Restaurant, Nou Nou's food truck, Curry leaf, Greene Lily, Vista del Mar, Restaurant 511, Mazotti's, Plaza Grill, Jack's Seafood, Blue Lake Casino, Manzanilla Kitchen, Humboldt Soup Co., Ramone's, Opera Alley Bistro, Tavern 1888 at the Eagle House, Big Blue Cafe, Murphy's Market, Cap's Food Shack and the Jefferson Community Center. Brio, Ramone's and the North Coast Co-op are signed up to make fresh loaves of bread, as well. But Campbell, who evidently doesn't worry about too many cooks in the kitchen, isn't done recruiting. "I think I have enough but if someone wants to join in, we can make it work."

"I started sending messages and if they didn't respond I just showed up with a flyer," says Campbell, noting Restaurant 511 was first to get on board. "We'll have a handful of soups on hand rotating in and out instead of putting all of them out at once." He promises there will be vegetarian options, but the menu is mostly TBA for now. But he's not worried. "When I was in restaurants, I'd see what was in the walk-in [refrigerator] at the time and that would determine what I'm making."

Not content to solely contribute legwork, Campbell is putting his ladle and his bowls where his mouth is. Now a board member at St. Vincent de Paul, Campbell is in charge of the dining facility's soup contribution. "I'm still debating but I'm thinking about a mulligatawny. It's an Indian recipe that usually has apples, but I change it up and use mandarin oranges." As for bowls, he's taken a break from the custom order fermenting crocks he usually sells to make 30 or so and is busy collecting from other artists and craftspeople near and far.

Scores of bowls are coming from students and faculty at Cal Poly Humboldt and College of the Redwoods, as well as the Fire Arts Center. Still, others are rolling in via Campbell's call-out on his Clay Buddies Facebook group, which boasts 52,000 members.

"What's awesome," says Campbell, is the sense of community, "because now we've got all these skilled artists and chefs at restaurants that want to work together."

Campbell laughs, recalling how a friend in the restaurant business first recruited him to start pulling shifts at St. Vincent de Paul's before grueling dinner service at his regular job.

"I found out I like cooking for homeless people more than I like cooking for rich people," he says, adding that it's still the case. "I find it more rewarding now that I'm not getting paid. I find things these days more enjoyable when I'm giving freely and not benefiting from it. I like helping people."

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at (707) 442-1400, extension 320, or [email protected].

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