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Gail Nettleton, the celebrated chef at the East Haven United Community Kitchen, says that her main ingredient in all of her cooking is the love she received from her parents, Mary and Ralph Gambardella. She hopes to pass this love on through her cooking at the United Community Kitchen. (Photo by Elizabeth Reinhart/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
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When Gail Nettleton first started volunteering at the East Haven United Community Kitchen, “they never knew I could cook,” she says.
“I would roll silverware and talk to people,” Gail says.
Once that secret was out, she took the lead as top chef of this not-for-profit organization.
“I shop, I plan the menu, and of course, I cook,” she says.
The East Haven United Community Kitchen serves lunch for all East Haven residents and surrounding towns from noon to 1 p.m. on the first and third Saturdays of the month at 39 Park Place.
Gail started volunteering at the United Community Kitchen in 2012, after she saw a notice in the Courier asking for volunteers.
She is, as she describes it, a “home-schooled cook” and one who relies on a background of experience with Italian cooking, stemming from her heritage.
“When you come from an Italian family, they either put a spoon in your hand or a pencil,” Gail says. “I liked the spoon better.”
Her greatest reward is seeing the expression on people’s faces after they taste her dishes.
“It makes me happy,” Gail says. “There is nothing better than when they get their food. The commotion stops. You can hear a pin drop in the dining room.”
Typical items on the menu include “a lot of parmesans. I do a lot of chicken. It’s a healthier protein and it’s inexpensive.”
Gail and her team of sous chefs (Michele, Gretchen, Gerry and Helen) shop at the local Stop & Shop for ingredients. They use money derived from donations throughout the year and an annual spring fundraiser.
Overall, the organization spends approximately $3 on each meal that leaves the kitchen.
Gail says that her ability “to bring gourmet to the community on a budget” has given her a sense of accomplishment.
“Everything that I was telling people [from the start], they said it’s too much,” Gail says. “Well, I did it.”
Gail’s efforts in the kitchen are matched by about 20 others who volunteer with the United Community Kitchen.
“They put their heart and soul into it,” Gail says. “We have a heck of a crew.”
Gail witnessed their dedication when she briefly mentioned that she would be doing a little cleaning of the kitchen at the Christ & Epiphany Church at 39 Park Place, where the meals are created and served.
It took her by surprise, but “they showed up,” she says. “Our volunteers are ‘knock your socks off’ kind of people.”
Gail got started preparing food at an early age, learning from her mother at a small table in their kitchen.
“She gave me dough, and that’s how it started,” Gail says.
And although life has taken her many places, she’s always found a way back to the kitchen. An example includes when her grandmother was in a convalescent home in Hamden.
Gail started working there as a certified nurse’s aide, but after a snowstorm left the facility shorthanded in the kitchen, she volunteered for the job focusing on cuisine.
“I hung up my stethoscope for good and started cooking,” she says.
At the convalescent home, Gail worked “side by side with dieticians,” equipping her with knowledge on “the proteins and vitamins” needed in a typical diet, she says.
A lifelong resident of East Haven, Gail aspires to contribute to a community that has enriched her life.
“East Haven is a good town,” she says. “You have to make it be your town—I love it.”
Gail attended high school in the building on Tyler Street and says the current project to renovate the building to senior housing, “is wonderful.”
She and her husband, James, married in 1987 and raised three daughters in East Haven: Maria, Krista and Angelica. They enjoy spending time together and especially with their grandchildren, Mary, Mike, Mario, Antonio, Raphael, and Kaleyska.
The family will be together during the holidays, with Gail already planning a menu for Christmas Eve of “stuffed clams, shrimp, and seafood salad [with] a little broccoli,” she says.
All of her home-cooked meals are prepared in the kitchen of her childhood home, where she and her family reside.
The kitchen, which was renovated about four years ago with the help of her carpenter husband, allows for a bigger sink, more counter space, and open cabinets, among other features.
“There is nothing like grabbing what you need when you are cooking,” Gail says of the open cabinets.
Although the increased functionality of her home kitchen aids Gail in concocting delicious meals and baked treats, it’s really her know-how of different types of food and years of experience that enables her to cook in any kitchen.
And most that have sampled her creations would agree.
“The only complaint in the four or five years of doing this, was that their chicken could have been a little hotter,” Gail says.
For more information on the East Haven United Community Kitchen, visit www.christandtheepiphany.com or find the kitchen on Facebook.
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