BY KURT DUSTERBERG
Sera Cuni is hovering over a simmering stock pot at her Café Root Cellar in Pittsboro on a quiet Monday afternoon. A quick peek reveals a variety of veggies crowded along the surface of the water, giving off a pleasant aroma. “This is my enchilada sauce. It’s tomatoes, peppers, onions, chilis, garlic, cilantro,” Cuni says. “I threw some bread in, so when I blend it, it thickens it up.”
The restaurant won’t open again until Thursday, but the owner is busy working on her other mission, where her sunny optimism assures that every bit of food that passes through her kitchen will wind up on a plate or in a pot. “It was bread that had gone stale here, so I threw it in, instead of making a roux,” she says. “It’s so easy when you think about it. It just becomes second nature.”
Cuni, who also co-owns The Root Cellar Café & Catering in Chapel Hill with her wife, Susan White, started a new venture called Feed-Well Fridges in August. The full-size units are stocked with free meals that are available 24 hours a day. Residents are welcome to take what they need. One fridge is located in Siler City at 219 Chatham Square, and the other in Pittsboro at Cora, Chatham County’s food pantry, at 40 Camp Drive.
The fridges were Cuni’s idea, but the food is supplied by farmers, grocers, restaurants and caterers, tapping leftovers that would otherwise go to waste. On this day, Cuni is working in the kitchen alongside White and Larkin Willis.
A local caterer has donated trays of leftover barbecue, so the women are filling individual containers with sandwiches on hoagie rolls. Others are stocked with generous portions of meatballs and pasta. Already they have 60 meals ready to go out the door.
“We’ve made three trips to the Siler City fridge today,” White says. “We don’t normally make more than one, but a volunteer had already refilled the fridge.” The idea for Feed-Well Fridges began during COVID.
Each week, Cuni would break down her walk-in refrigerators and make soups to donate to Cora. But the lines were growing longer, and she knew residents faced eligibility limits at the pantry. According to the North Carolina Budget & Tax Center, approximately 11% of the population in Chatham County lives at or below the poverty level, and 27% is considered low-income. “I learned that we were all just one step away from nothing,” she says. “There’s so many people that went hungry at that time.”
When Café Root Cellar reopened, Cuni wanted to build on her contributions. She began packaging the leftovers from her catering business and reaching out to others in the industry. Local farms were quick to help. “They’re the most generous. They see what’s going on,” Cuni says. “With the restaurants, sometimes it comes down to being a pride thing. They don’t want us to know, maybe, how much waste they have. It happens.”
Remembering Her Roots
Cuni has always had a fondness for food. She grew up in Connecticut, where her grandfather ran an Italian-American social club. As a kid, she loved stirring the large pots on the stove. When she landed her first job at a Publix grocery store, she quickly realized that being in close proximity to the food wasn’t good enough. “I hated being a cashier, and I begged to go work in the deli,” she says. “From the age of 12, I knew I wanted to be a chef. I would watch PBS with my father on Saturday instead of cartoons.”
She attended Green Mountain College in Vermont on a soccer scholarship, but when she suffered an injury, she decided to go to culinary school in Vermont. In 2001, she moved to the Triangle, landing chef positions at The Fearrington House Restaurant and later at Foster’s Market, which she and White purchased and rebranded as Root Cellar Café & Catering in 2013. Her work at Foster’s influenced how she would cook. “That’s where I learned that good food doesn’t have to be fancy,” she says.
Cuni spends most of her time in the Pittsboro kitchen, where Café Root Cellar is open Thursday through Saturday for dinner and Sundays for brunch. Guests can always count on a good burger, but the menu changes every week. “It’s whatever I get at the farmer’s market, whatever I feel like I want to eat that week,” she says. “On Wednesday I come up with a menu and we start prepping it, and on Thursday, we open. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s good food.”
She is quick to reinforce that “nothing fancy” doesn’t mean the food isn’t delicious. She grew up on scratch-made food from her parents, and she wears it like a badge of honor. “Still to this day I never have had Hamburger Helper,” she declares.
The success of Feed-Well Fridges is partly owed to Cuni’s own celebrity in the food industry. She has appeared twice on the Food Network’s “Guy’s Grocery Games,” but it was an appearance on “Supermarket Stakeout” in June where she earned a measure of fame. The program challenges chefs to prepare themed dishes from the groceries that shoppers have just purchased. After she whipped up a peanut butter and jelly crumb cake ice cream sandwich in the dessert competition, Cuni was awarded the $10,000 grand prize.
Restocking and Expanding
There is a certain randomness about the food stacking up in the Pittsboro kitchen. Cuni glances past a box of green and yellow zucchini squash before sizing up a shelf with bananas, pasta and a lone jar of sauerkraut. She opens a cardboard flap to reveal dozens of green apples.
“I will probably turn these into applesauce, maybe some apple cobblers,” she says confidently. None of the food will go to waste. Cuni and her staff prepared more than 2,000 meals in the first two months. Such is the need in Chatham County. But the numbers are less important to her than the need. “The fridges are emptied every day,” she says.
Eventually, Cuni would like to expand the Feed-Well Fridges. Siler City could use another, and there is food insecurity in Goldston and other communities as well. There are logistics to work through, including donors, kitchen space and volunteers. Refrigerators must be located somewhere where safe, 24-hour access is assured. But the food resources are already out there. “I drive to Smithfield to pick up hundreds of pounds of chicken bones,” she says. “I turn it into chicken stock, chicken dumplings, chicken soup, chicken pot pie.”
In the meantime, Cuni will do what she can, feeding the fortunate and the needful. Both will be fed well. “No one gets into restaurants to make a lot of money anyways,” she says. “So at least I’m doing something good.”