Yesterday, I had lunch at Café Reconcile in Central City, New Orleans. Housed in a modest five-story building on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, the mission of Cafe Reconcile is to teach at-risk youth (primarily African-American), through the discipline of the professional kitchen, the life skills and job skills they need to succeed; it also serves as a community outreach center, a rallying point in its blighted neighborhood, and maybe least importantly, a damn tasty restaurant.
When I arrived at Café Reconcile right around noon, there was already a line out the door. Young men and women were busily cooking, plating, serving, busing, and performing the myriad other tasks that happen simultaneously during service to ensure diner satisfaction: it was beautiful to watch. I was greeted by a program director, James, who pleasantly sat my one-top self at a four-top despite the fact that they were far too busy for such inconvenience. I promised to eat quickly. Besides, I was there on business, really. I wanted to check it out and see how I could help or otherwise get involved. And it was Tuesday and Tuesday is smothered pork chop day and I am a big believer in the étouffée school of cooking.
I placed my order: smothered chops, collard greens, jalapeño cornbread and an unsweetened iced tea. Then I sat back and watched the week four students (the program runs twelve weeks) work. My iced tea was delivered quickly, but napkin-less by a harried hostess, which didn’t go unnoticed by the young man in charge of my section. He quickly picked up the tea and slid a napkin underneath. It was a small gesture and one that did not go unnoticed. It was an indication of professionalism, but more importantly, pride. These kids weren’t assigned to this program, they were here voluntarily — they wanted to be here — and it was apparent: from their smiles, their hospitality, and their gratitude. And make no mistake about it, these were some grateful young men and women. At no point was it lost on me or on them that had they made a different choice life could be very, very different. These were kids that came up hard and in tough neighborhoods. As I looked at tatted-up arms and hands and necks (and in some cases, faces), many of the homemade variety, I understood just how tenuous the situation was, but more importantly, so did the young people serving my food. They were well aware that there are no guarantees after this twelve weeks is up… All the things you brought in with you are still out there waiting. The difference: now you have something to take out there with you… you are armed with a whole different kind of weapon: knowledge and skill and purpose. This was the gratitude I could sense.
And not only could I sense it, but I could taste it. Every bite was made with love. My pork chops, smothered in a spicy, perfectly seasoned brown gravy were tender. My greens had that deep, nutty flavor and slightly bitter finish… that chicory coffee bittersweetness I can never get enough of. And cornbread is there to sop it up and remind you just how good it is. This is grandma food: the best kind of food. And food largely invented by the progenitors of the people now serving it to me. There was, to me, something deeply moving about this, especially in an age where fast-food has been aggressively marketed towards lower income African-Americans and has destroyed or co-opted so many of the traditional, home-cooked dishes. It’s hard not to sound like a preachy, white asshole writing this, but I truly felt what I am awkwardly trying to describe; in short, I felt proud for them.
Some of this emotion, truth be told, is rooted in my own personal regret for not having done more myself. Back in 2005, when New Orleans could have desperately used me, I sent a check. I had the opportunity to come to the city through a job I had at the time, but I never did it. At the time I was sad-sacking and worried about myself, the depth of my own narcissism truly astounding. I am embarrassed by it to this day. However, if I have learned anything (and sometimes I honestly wonder if I have), I have learned that living with regret is a horrible proposition, and that living in the past is not living at all. I am here now. And New Orleans still needs help. And I am a little late to the party. But I’m not going anywhere. This time I want to get it right.
Because honestly, this isn’t about me at all. This is about finding a way to inspire and empower (I hate that word but it’s right here). This is about giving young people choice and opportunity. This is about discipline, without which, it is impossible to succeed.
As I was on my way out, a tall young man named Ed (years of clanging pots and loud amplifiers have taken away my range of hearing that would allow me to discern Edgar or Edward) asked me how I enjoyed my meal and if I wanted to know anything about the program. I told him the truth: that everything was superb. Then I asked him how he liked the program, to which he responded instantaneously “Honestly, I love it.”
I have no way of knowing if there is or is not a God, although I have my suspicions. It is, however, no exaggeration to say Café Reconcile is doing “God’s work,” or at least the work of the God I’d care to imagine. And maybe sometimes that’s all you can ask for… and maybe sometimes redemption comes one plate at a time.