At 59, chef Inna Khitrik made a bold career move. She didn’t launch a franchise or put her name on a line of salad dressings. Instead, she left her namesake restaurant, Inna’s Kitchen, for a much less high-profile — but enormously gratifying — job. Now, she’s the kitchen manager at Women’s Lunch Place in the Back Bay, serving zucchini brownies and fresh salads to women in need.
Inna’s Kitchen was known throughout Newton and later at the Boston Public Market for veggie-packed soups, shakshuka, latkes, stuffed cabbage, gluten-free challah, and pot pies. The pace is different here: Women’s Lunch Place is a daytime shelter where approximately 1,800 women each year receive medical care, counseling, housing assistance, hygiene support, and nourishing breakfasts and lunches.
Khitrik works behind the counter five days a week, designing more than 113,000 meals annually and chatting with guests, who eat at communal tables. More than half of these women rely on the Women’s Lunch Place for their primary source of nutrition.
Khitrik understands what it feels like to be an outsider. Born in Belarus, she arrived in Boston from Russia via Italy at 25, with two children in tow.
“Because we were Jewish, we never belonged in Russia,” Khitrik says. “We were made to feel like we didn’t belong there. So we immigrated as refugees. I had been bullied at school, just because my mother and father are Jewish, and because we cooked a little differently.”
And she adored cooking.
“I loved cooking since I was very young. But my stepfather didn’t want me to go to culinary school because I was little, skinny! And you have to carry those heavy pots and pans,” she says, laughing.
The family came in 1990, choosing Boston because her husband had family here. They received some assistance from Jewish Vocational Services, which helped her find a job running the register at Waban Market, a Newton supermarket owned by Russian immigrants. She began experimenting with prepared foods in the deli, and eventually she opened her own salad bar, Carrot Top, in Coolidge Corner.
“We should have advertised more, but we had no money for advertising,” she says.
And she still needed to work, especially with a third child in day care. She took on personal chef jobs, going on to manage food programs for Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly. She eventually ran the food program at Newton’s Golda Meir House, a senior living community, for 12 years.
She and her son, Alex — an accomplished baker who worked at Haley House in Roxbury — opened Inna’s Kitchen in 2011, preparing global Jewish cuisine from scratch. It was a hit throughout Newton and beyond, known for gorgeous salads, soups, and abundant Kosher options. But, after 11 years, she sensed it was time for Alex to take over and for the mother-son pair to revert to a more traditional family dynamic.
“My hands are very tired. I have arthritis, and I’ve been physically working like crazy for so many hours every day. I told my son: Enough is enough,” she says.
But, still, Khitrik wanted to work. She found the Women’s Lunch Place position through an online advertisement, taking over for longtime chef Sherry Hughes, and the mission resonated.
“I wanted to serve women because it’s hard to be a woman. But it’s even more important serving somebody who is underprivileged, who cannot afford it. We not only have homeless people — we also have people who just cannot afford to live,” she says.
But meals are a bright spot. On Thursdays, Gaining Ground, an organic farm in Concord dedicated to hunger relief, drops off fresh produce. Fish comes from Captain Marden’s; additional ingredients are donated by food-rescue organization Lovin’ Spoonfuls.
Khitrik improvises, planning the menus based on what’s available, and a staff of four volunteers and assistant chefs help her behind the counter. She likes making the most of what’s on hand with a healthy spin. Last week, she tried portabella steak and cheese. On an especially steamy July day, it was Mediterranean orzo salad with cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, and feta. A newly donated stand mixer makes dessert prep easier; last Monday, she was whirring batter for pineapple cake while volunteers sliced.
“I bake a lot. Now I have my mixer. I’m very proud of it,” she says. “I try to cut the sugar content. Yesterday, we had some overripe avocados, so I made avocado chocolate mousse — and brownies with zucchini.”
The dynamic in the kitchen is relaxed, and volunteers play a big role. This was part of the allure for Khitrik: She has plenty of assistance in the kitchen. While she stays busy behind the counter, she also devotes much of her time to menu planning.
“On Monday, Inna was saying to me: ‘Do you cook Swiss chard? What do you like to do?’ And so we’re bouncing recipes back and forth, and she does this with everyone in the kitchen. We’re not professional chefs. We’re home cooks. But we have ideas, and Inna takes our ideas,” says kitchen volunteer Jenny Leopold. “I told her that I generally sauté it with onions, garlic. And we had green onions that had just come in from the farm. All of a sudden, we’re cutting them up, and it becomes a gorgeous side dish.”
“She cares about cooking a variety and diverse menu, which I really like about her,” says volunteer Pouran Ghassemi, a registered dietician. “I like seeing how she’s providing high-quality, high-protein meals, like a Mediterranean diet with lots of fresh vegetables that people generously donate or that Inna orders. Lots of fruits, lots of grain. Inna is very crafty with her menus.”
And, just like at Inna’s, there’s always soup.
“I’m a huge fan of the fact that she does soup every day at lunch. It’s always part of the meal. If you want a nurturing meal, soup is the key,” says Leopold.
Kathy Babbin, a part-time medical technician and Zumba instructor, began visiting Women’s Lunch Place seven years ago, after her parents’ deaths left her homeless. She was depressed, couch-surfing, and uncertain about where to go next.
“I swallowed my pride, did a Google search, and it brought me here. I feel safe here. It’s a safe, welcoming community,” she says.
Babbin has maintained stable housing in Brookline for the past four years, but she continues visiting Women’s Lunch Place for meals.
“Food is expensive, and SNAP only gives you so much,” she says. “I love salmon, and they serve it once a week.”
“The food is the best part,” says Lee Smith, who visits for lunch almost every day. “They help you here. They care. And the food is good.”
Most of all, Khitrik says, working at Women’s Lunch Place taught her about taking care of herself, too. Her hours are more regular now that she doesn’t run her own business, she says, and she has more downtime to play badminton and to see her two grandchildren. She usually arrives at work around 7 a.m. and leaves for her home in Auburndale by mid-afternoon, after lunch is served.
“Every day, you’re doing something that has purpose. Somebody comes in and says ‘thank you’ for the job you’re doing,” she says. “But I also have time to take care of myself. Because, when you’re well, you can give more.”