By Hannah Vermillion | Photography courtesy of Chef Kelly Welk
I first found out about Chef Kelly Welk from a dear friend who wanted to gather a group of friends together to cook a meal and foster fellowship over meaningful conversation and delicious food. Instantly, I was a fan of the idea! A few weeks later, I received a special gift from that same friend: Dinner Changes Everything by Kelly Welk. With no prior knowledge of the cookbook, I skimmed its pages and learned that it not only teaches people how to prepare delicious recipes, but also supports a cause close to my heart and many others—the fight against sex trafficking. In this book, you will find recipes and tips for hosting your own Freedom Dinners, as Welk calls them. I recently had the chance to catch up with the chef herself and learn even more about her inspiration for Dinner Changes Everything and the Freedom Dinners.
VIE: What inspired you to write Dinner Changes Everything?
Chef Kelly Welk: After we had been hosting the Freedom Dinners for a year, people were asking me more and more questions on how the dinners started, how they worked, and how individuals could host their own. It was all of these questions that gave me the courage to write the book.
I am not a traditionally trained chef. I’ve learned all of my cooking and hosting skills from hands-on experience, and the more that I invited our community in to be part of these dinners, the more I knew that this was exactly what people needed to see and hear about. The Freedom Dinners are about each of us doing what we can. It is incredibly beautiful and powerful when we all work together offering what we have. Freedom Dinners are fully funded by donations and run by volunteers so that every penny raised from ticket sales can go directly to the women and children who desperately need freedom and hope.
The cookbook is a glimpse into our community; it features my own fresh, homegrown menus as well as stories of gardeners, flower farmers, friends stepping in to wash dishes, and others using their time and experience to help run the kitchen. From the beautiful tables that were built and donated by a local woodworker to the photography by Saleina Marie and flowers donated from Willow and Mabel Garden Co., Dinner Changes Everything is truly a reflection of the beauty that comes from community.
VIE: What can you tell us about your first Freedom Dinner?
KW: Our first dinner was so normal. We set up a couple of tables on our back deck; they weren’t the same size or shape, and we didn’t have matching linens or dishes. It was a simple dinner with friends. I was so nervous when I sent out that first invitation. I didn’t know if anyone would come! Who invites their friends to dinner and says, “Oh, and by the way, you need to pay to eat with us this time”? Ha!
The thing that shocked me with that first dinner was not just that we had seven friends who said yes, but that so many other people in our community jumped at the chance to be involved. One gal donated potatoes from her garden, my parents sent us salmon they’d caught in Alaska, another local business donated wine, another brought decor from her shop, a friend bought all the ingredients for the salad and dropped them off at our house, and other friends showed up to help me prep and set the table. What started as a somewhat selfish desire to be able to donate more funds quickly turned into an opportunity for our community to use their everyday lives to be a part of something bigger. It shocked me because I was not expecting it.
What I’ve realized is that we’re all looking for a way to be involved that fits what our lives are already about. My stepping out to use what I can do best has opened many doors for other people to do the same. It is this willingness to be involved that continues to propel the dinners.
What I’ve realized is that we’re all looking for a way to be involved that fits what our lives are already about.
VIE: Tell us how you became connected with Rescue Freedom and about what they do.
KW: Jeremy Vallerand, the CEO of Rescue:Freedom International, is a friend that we met while in college. His career had taken off, and he was presented with the reality of human trafficking while on a business trip to India. When he got home, he teamed up with Del Chittim to launch what is now known as Climb for Captives. Their mountain climbs raised funds to help support the safe homes in India that Jeremy had visited. As Climb for Captives grew and the funds continued to come in, he founded the nonprofit Rescue:Freedom International.
Six years ago, I heard Jeremy speaking at an event and was so moved by his stories, I knew I needed to do more than simply give the extra twenty dollars that was in my wallet. Honestly, I didn’t feel like I had anything to offer. How could I, a mom from Bremerton, Washington, do anything to fight this global injustice? Jeremy’s story of how his love for climbing became a tool to help is what inspired me to think that maybe I could do what I already loved to do—host a dinner. That is where the simple idea for Freedom Dinners came from. Quite honestly, it still felt too small, but I knew the best thing I could do was what was already in front of me.
That first Freedom Dinner has evolved into over five hundred people hosted at our table. Our business, Ciderpress Lane, also grew from the dinners, and we donate 10 percent of all profits. Between the business and the Freedom Dinners, we’ve played a part in raising over fifty thousand dollars for Rescue:Freedom. I never would have imagined that when we welcomed friends to our table for that first dinner it would grow to what it is today.
VIE: I’m so inspired by how you took your skills and resources and used them to help others. What words of encouragement would you give to someone looking to do the same?
KW: Look around you at your everyday life. The things you think are small, silly, or frivolous—that’s where you need to begin. I had ignored my love of hosting. We had people at our house and around our table all the time; it was just what I did. But it felt so normal that I didn’t give it a second thought. I always thought that if I was going to do something that made a big impact, it would need to be outside of my norm, and that is where I was dead wrong.
When we can leverage these parts of our lives, we’re leaning in to all of the things that fill life with the joy of living, and it’s 100 percent sustainable because we want to do it! It’s this joy in doing that attracts people. It makes it easy to find community and support when we’re tapping into the things that we all love. And when we get to do it together, it feeds our souls even more.
This question that you asked is one I have been asked often, and it inspired me to write my second book, Dream Catcher. It’s a guided journal to help you uncover your own skills and resources. It helps you see your everyday life from a fresh perspective and then take the steps to start living it all out. I even created a master class to go along with the book that includes twelve video sessions and additional journal pages to help you dive even deeper into this question. You can find out more at CiderpressLane.com/shop.
VIE: I can’t wait to host my own Freedom Dinner! Do you have any tips on how to create the perfect space?
KW: Yes! Don’t wait for everything to be perfect. Invite friends to dinner and watch how an evening around the table, using what you have to help someone else, will change everything.
My most basic tips for creating the perfect space are:
- Light candles. Dim lighting makes any space feel cozy, whether you’re outside or inside. Create a cozy space with soft lighting.
- Turn on music. Background music takes the awkward quiet away and makes any space feel like it’s ready and inviting.
- Invite people to help. Whether you’re inviting your guests to bring a dish or friends to help you host, there’s no need to do it all by yourself. The best part of any meal is the preparing and being together, so invite people in to be part of creating the ambience and food.
- I have all sorts of tips on hosting your own Freedom Dinner on our blog at CiderpressLane.com/freedom-dinner-resource, plus a full page of invitation ideas, menus, playlists, and more!
VIE: What is your favorite springtime meal to cook?
KW: I love cooking with the seasons, so anything involving fresh herbs and getting out to the grill would be my go-to springtime meal! This Moroccan chicken is packed full of flavor and is delicious over a chipotle salad served with fresh corn muffins and honey butter!
— V —
1 bunch cilantro
4 sprigs fresh mint
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 garlic clove
1 teaspoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
Zest from 1 lime
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 pound chicken tenders (You can also substitute flank steak or pork tenderloin.)
Pulse all of the ingredients except the meat in a food processor until the cilantro is completely minced and all ingredients are well combined. Place the meat and marinade in a gallon-sized plastic storage bag. Massage the bag, mixing it around until the meat is completely covered with the marinade. Chill for at least two hours or overnight. Grill and then serve!
This entrée is perfect atop Chef Kelly Welk’s chipotle salad with a side of fresh corn muffins!
For the dressing:
2/3 cup sour cream
1 tablespoon canned chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, minced
1 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon salt
Juice from 1 lime (plus more to taste)
Chipotle hot sauce to taste
Place all ingredients in a medium-sized bowl and blend until combined. Add more lime juice, hot sauce, or salt to taste.
For the salad:
1 head romaine lettuce
1/2 small red cabbage, shredded
1/2 bunch of cilantro, chopped
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
1 avocado, peeled and sliced
4–5 radishes, thinly sliced
1/2 English cucumber, sliced
1/4 small red onion, thinly sliced
1 (15-ounce) can black beans, rinsed and drained
Add all ingredients to a large serving bowl, toss together, and serve! It’s best to serve the dressing on the side so your guests can add it to taste. Additional optional toppings on the side might include fire-roasted corn, tortilla chips, and cotija cheese. Enjoy!
Sweet Corn Muffins with Honey Butter
This recipe is from Dinner Changes Everything.
1 1/2 cups flour
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 (14-ounce) can cream-style corn
3 tablespoons melted butter
For the honey butter:
1 cup butter
1/2 cup honey
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a twelve-cup muffin pan and set aside. Combine flour, sugar, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, mix together the creamed corn, eggs, and melted butter.
Pour the corn and egg mixture into the flour mixture and stir by hand until just combined. (Overstirring causes the muffins to change texture, so be gentle with it.) Pour the batter into the muffin pan.
Bake for 18 to 20 minutes or until a wooden toothpick comes out clean. Cool for a few minutes in the muffin pan, and then transfer to a cooling rack.
While the muffins are baking, make the honey butter. Soften the butter and warm the honey. With an electric mixer, whip the honey and butter together. Transfer to small serving bowls and serve with the corn muffins. Bon appétit!