On the Friday before Memorial Day, Cookie Till let out a chuckle when asked how she prepares for the holiday influx.
She is the titular Cookie of the iconic Margate restaurant Steve and Cookie’s. “To get it to work like an orchestra, a well-tuned orchestra — that’s the goal. It doesn’t always happen, but it’s the goal,” she said, crediting her staff, who train all year for weekends like this, and chef Kevin Kelly, with whom she’s worked for 21 years. “You don’t go from zero to 90 in two days.”
But her mission to share good food with the community spreads beyond the restaurant walls.
Till started the nonprofit A Work in Progress, which partners with local organizations and businesses like AtlantiCare and the Boys and Girls Club, to provide healthy food and nutritional education to kids in Atlantic County through urban gardening programs.
“I’ve just always been interested in food and nutrition and just feeding people well and treating people well,” said Till, who studied nutrition at Stockton University and Drexel University, “and the availability issues that there are as far as inner city access to good food, fresh food. That’s always been something that just boggles my mind, that it’s an issue, because there’s plenty of food.”
Through the nonprofit, she and a local teacher developed a Harvest of the Month program two years ago, in which a locally grown fruit or vegetable is chosen and chefs create a recipe using that ingredient for school students to try. It piloted at the Ross School in Margate and has grown to include another school with others expressing interest.
Students are encouraged to learn more about where the food comes from and its nutritional value.
Giving kids access to healthy foods is something Till cares strongly about.
“There’s so many levels of this whole food issue that you can never stop learning about it. It never stops evolving,” she said. “From the simplest just getting food to people and giving them a chance to thrive and kids, especially, in school, how do you have a chance to perform well when you’re hungry?
“And it’s not just feeding — you don’t have enough time, don’t get me started,” she laughed. “It’s about feeding well, not gourmet but just a balanced breakfast for kids so their brains are functioning best they can, they can concentrate.”
Through creating gardens where students can actually see the foods growing and get own hands dirty in the process, it creates an opportunity to use classroom skills — like math in figuring out the square footage of the garden or science as they learn about earthworms or keeping rabbits away from the plants — and keep it fun, too.
Featured harvests have included butternut squash, broccoli, apples, as well as more unique choices like kohlrabi or dandelion greens.
“We have a poster all month up and the kids are exposed to it, and in the cafeteria, we talk about … why it’s healthy, where it comes from, we show them the map of New Jersey. So it drives it home for them,” she said. “It’s literally and figuratively a bite.”
She’s also been doing a cooking class at the Boys and Girls Club for 10 years.
Cooking and sharing food has ties to her Jewish upbringing. She remembered her family cooking for the High Holidays and Passover, which are traditions she felt moved to carry over to Steve and Cookie’s. She offers dinners for Rosh Hashanah and Passover at the restaurant.
“It fills a void for people apparently, so that’s nice,” she said, “but I just did it because I really just felt moved to do it.”
She’s also continued to feed her own love for baking and cooking with the opening of bakery Ventnor No. 7311 in 2015.
And while she replied with an enthusiastic “Of course!” when asked if there is more she’d like to do, she’s happy to expand her nonprofit work and that Steve and Cookie’s — which also operates a popular food truck — maintains a special place in people’s hearts.
“It means a lot that people like coming here for everything from their special occasions to just some dinner at the bar,” she said. “When I walk around and talk to people and they feel like this is like home to them, what else can you ask for?”
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