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Soul Kitchen 

Cafe Reconcile puts more than daily specials on the table. They serve up dreams.

Most days, Cafe Reconcile operates in a state that some would call crisis mode. Others prefer to call it the grace of God.

It's 9:30 a.m., and the mass Craig Cuccia attends daily down the street at Immaculate Conception Jesuit Church let out an hour ago, but Cuccia hasn't shown his face yet. Someone says Cuccia is in his office, a slow ride on the freight elevator through the sporadically restored building. It's the same office that won't have a telephone until the phone guy (a professional and friend of the cafe) finds time to volunteer his services. Someone in the kitchen mumbles something about being short-staffed.

Cuccia is through the front door at 10 a.m. One of three co-founders of Cafe Reconcile -- and the only founder who works here daily -- Cuccia is often, almost literally, in two places at once. He hurdles between meeting potential donors who pop into the nonprofit cafe for lunch, and peeling carrots in the prep kitchen with a student dishwasher who has never done it before. When Cuccia sees me waiting, his eyes, never quiet, take on a heightened twinkle. Within seconds I'm handed a white cook's apron. "Can you help?" he asks in such a way that not only implies that I will help, but that I will help gladly and for as long as I'm needed.

It turns out the head chef has fallen ill on the same day that the cafe is scheduled to debut its talent to the staff at Trinity Episcopal School, which has just hired Cafe Reconcile to take over its lunch program. Feeding approximately 150 school kids four days a week could help bring the cafe to economic stability, if not growth. Chef Craig Murray had motivated the lunch project from daydream to reality. But today, in Murray's absence, Cuccia has to round up other Reconcile workers, along with students of the hospitality program that operates at the cafe, and one newly enlisted volunteer. Between 10 a.m. and noon, everyone is wiping silverware, baking brownies, slicing bread and counting plates. At lunchtime, Cuccia will unveil the program to peals of applause from the Trinity School staff. High-five moments like these occur daily at Cafe Reconcile.

"I was, say, touched by the Lord to get involved," says Cuccia of his work here. Nine years ago, Cuccia began his journey at the Center of Jesus the Lord on Rampart Street, under the guidance of Father Emile Lafranz -- a priest who, according to Cuccia, "had this whole concept of 'parish' as being an outreach." When Father Lafranz died of cancer, Cuccia found another spiritual advisor and partner in outreach in Father Harry Tompson of Immaculate Conception.

Tompson, who died in 2001, was already battling cancer when he met Cuccia, and the two men were quick to focus their energies. Tompson had a strong affinity for the neighborhood surrounding Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, formerly Dryades Street. With remarkable timing -- people around Cafe Reconcile call it a "miracle" -- Cuccia's brother-in-law, Tim Falcon, offered to back a project in the neighborhood with both spiritual support and money. Tompson and Falcon agreed that Cuccia should be their man of action.

Their first step was establishing the LSF Foundation, named in memory of the late Father Lafranz; Darby Simmons, a deceased youth minister; and Falcon's brother, Kenneth, who died in a tugboat accident. The men didn't yet know what kind of program would result from their efforts. In a series of meetings, residents in Central City said they wanted to rebuild the area's once thriving retail community, and preferred a business to a charity "hand-out" center. In 1997, the foundation found a space at the corner of Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard and Euterpe Street.

Even after securing the building, Cuccia says, the founders weren't sure just what to do next. "I came here, stood on the corner and asked, 'God, what am I supposed to do?'" he says. "I sat out on a garbage can for about three months."

Which is how he met Tyrone Hall. "He was guarding the building," says Cuccia. "He was trying to buy the building so it wouldn't get vandalized. He was selling coffee and doughnuts out in front to all the prostitutes and drug dealers. ... You came down this street that was totally a bombed-out area, and here he was with a tuxedo shirt, red bow-tie and tuxedo pants. He was a real inspiration."

Hall didn't have adequate funds to buy the property, so he and Cuccia struck a deal: Hall's Sweet Shop opened almost immediately so that Hall could continue to guard against vandalism. Neighborhood kids still swarm the corner walk-up window for sno-balls and candy before the shop opens every afternoon.

The decision to open a cafe in the corner building grew out of several converging factors. The ground floor, formerly a neighborhood restaurant and later a bar, already had the infrastructure. Cuccia and Falcon had been researching various outreach programs across the country, and became interested in successful hospitality training programs. This corresponded well to the availability of jobs in New Orleans' hotels and restaurants.

This last factor provided a sure link to the neighborhood's young people. Father Tompson ("a brilliant man," says Cuccia) promptly drew up mission statements for Cafe Reconcile and its partner program, the St. John Francis Regis Hospitality School.

A young man, barely five feet tall, with starched white shirt tucked sharply into belted black jeans, shifted his weight from foot to foot near a stack of menus just inside the cafe. "Hello, ma'am," he said to a potential customer, flashing a smile that threatens to outcharm Cuccia's. "You, uh, gonna be eating with us today?"

Martin, 16, learned about the hospitality program in the court of Juvenile Justice Mark Doherty. "I was in this program with a judge," he said. "And he wanted me to do something better with myself. He saw something inside of me that was good, so he sent me here." Martin (some juvenile participants' names have been changed for this story) was in his fourth week of the hospitality program when I met him. It was his first job, and he was a shoo-in for a Cafe Reconcile success story.

As with any job, magnetic charm only goes so far at Cafe Reconcile. Students are expected to arrive on time and perform to fairly strict workplace standards. The point is to prepare them for life in the working community beyond the cafe. Martin understood the pay-off. "They gotta find me a job," he said, "and I gotta do right." He followed the rules down to catching the early morning bus in eastern New Orleans every day, paying for it with money from his mother and his tips. (The cafe, now buying students' bus tokens out of its petty cash, has applied for transportation funding.)

"It's taught me a lot of things," Martin said about the cafe. "It keeps my head straight."

But two months have passed since our initial meeting, and Martin, whose young age narrowed his employment prospects and consequently delayed his job placement, is no longer in contact with the cafe.

Stories like Martin's -- with both the successes and the challenges -- are what attracted Oliver Duvernay to Cafe Reconcile. In fact, when asked what brought him here, he recites his reason like a three-syllable hymn: for the kids. An employee at Second Harvesters Food Bank for just under four years, Duvernay developed a relationship with Cuccia when he was the program director of Kids Cafe, a meal project executed through the food bank. Cafe Reconcile became a site for Kids Cafe's Saturday evening meals in 1997, shortly after the LSF Foundation purchased the Central City building. Thanks to a grant, Cuccia hired Duvernay last June to head the hospitality program.

"I came here to try to put my hands to the plow and do whatever it is that I can do," says Duvernay, also a Baptist minister. "I'm not a restaurant man. However, I am a man who knows how to keep a job." Which is the objective he tries to pass onto students during their six weeks at the cafe.

Students begin each day by working at an assigned post in the restaurant, beginning with receiving goods and dishwashing, and finishing the program waiting tables. They spend the final two hours in class with Duvernay. His guidelines are a collaboration of the New Orleans Jobs Initiatives 21-Day Soft Skills Training Course and the 40 Developmental Assets of the Council on Alcohol and Drug Addiction (CADA). Through his own talks and occasional guest speakers, Duvernay works through the loose structure of a curriculum aiming to show students how to replace the norms of the street for the norms of the workplace.

Classes include drug education and intervention. Drug use during the program is not allowed, and students must undergo drug testing before completion. Participating in the program also requires students to arrive on time in a tidy uniform, remain through the classroom work, be able to survive financially without compensation (besides tips) for six weeks, and maintain a positive attitude.

Duvernay tries to measure students' successes by the standards of the "real world," truly preparing them for jobs outside the cafe. "Oliver cuts no corners with them because out there there are no corners being cut," says Cuccia. Still, when he talks about his work, Duvernay drops the word "love" as if it's his guiding principle. "We literally love people to pieces around here. ... When one of these young people needs something -- they need a ride, money, a shirt for work, shoes, socks -- we go and get it. Period."

Another colleague reports that Duvernay recently brought home the shirt of a student who didn't have an iron and pressed it, so that the student would be prepared for a job interview the following day.

Soon after joining the cafe, Duvernay realized the critical need for a program to track students and potential students who slip through the cracks -- either never showing up for their first day at the cafe, getting released from the program early, falling out of contact after a job placement or, like Martin, dropping out before finding work outside the cafe. To the best of his ability, Duvernay deduced that out of 94 applicants within the hospitality program's first year (beginning July, 2000), there were 42 no-shows. Out of the 52 students who turned up for their first day, only 22 had finished the program. Out of those 22, he admits he knows of only a fraction that currently are working.

Duvernay cites transportation, family problems, incarceration, pregnancy, other jobs, school demands and flaws in the program itself as possible reasons for no-shows and drop-outs. He hopes a solid After Care program would not only rein in students who need extra support, but also illuminate which needs are not being met. "If we start figuring out what the kids' needs are, then we can better qualify some of the material resources -- the funding," he says.

At the moment, Duvernay accepts students from all corners of the city, regardless of how they learned about the program. As of July, the past and present student population seemed to be a fairly equal spread between walk-ins, court referrals and kids who had been sent by group homes or their own families. "The kids already come with talents," he says. "We teach them to draw down on what they already have."

Take 20-year-old Grant. He learned about the hospitality school when he happened upon Kids Cafe. A superb worker in the kitchen, he was released from the program on friendly terms last summer for rarely attending afternoon class. Although he found a job on his own, he and a friend continued to use the cafe as a sort of home base, volunteering in the kitchen and using the computer. At the beginning of October, Grant was earning an hourly wage at the cafe, helping to launch its breakfast program and working on the line.

"[Some kids] see this place as a solace, and that I definitely don't mind," says Duvernay. "Either they're going to be here, or they're going to be out trying to find something else to get into. I'd much rather have them here."

Chef Craig Murray is training a student to prepare a hamburger. The student lifts a lid from a saute pan to reveal a thin patty outlined with brown, bubbling juices. The pan sizzles when Murray pours in another few ounces of water; he tells the student to let it simmer until the gravy thickens. "That's what I call home cookin'," Murray says, obviously pleased. "When I was growing up, we were always running out of bread because we'd sop up all the juices and anything else on the plate."

In his childhood home in Mid-City, Murray always gravitated toward the kitchen that was kept solely by the women in his family. "I would pick through peas and okra. When they had them turkey necks boiled, they'd put me to work picking all the meat off for gravy." But when it came time to make the gravy, they would shoo him off to another tedious prep job.

He had worse luck when for years he tried to get a job in the kitchen of his neighborhood restaurant, Mandina's. "I was a school kid [looking] through the window, and you could see people cutting up onions, and I was thinking, 'I can do that. I do that at home.'"

If a place like Cafe Reconcile had been around 14 years ago, Murray says, he might have gotten "a hand up, not a hand-out," making his way into Mandina's kitchen with a certificate from a hospitality program. As it happened, his determination led to a prep cooking position in the French Quarter; he eventually landed a job at the Palace Cafe, where his long relationship with the Brennan restaurant family began. Most recently, Murray was chef de cuisine at Foodies Kitchen.

Dickie Brennan, who had been cultivating a relationship with Cuccia at Cafe Reconcile for awhile, immediately thought of Murray when the cafe's chef position came available last June (the original chef left for another job). "He felt like I felt," says Murray of Brennan. "Like the job was just right for me."

Talking with Murray, it's clear why he and the cafe hit it off. He's a spiritual man who, Brennan says, always asked Sundays off to spend with his wife and baby daughter; he's passionate about the cafe's mission. "That's what attracted me to this job more than anything: the opportunity to give something back," says Murray. "Before I was trying to explore everything I could -- to learn as much as I could learn. Now I'm wringing out like a sponge, every day seeing the difference I've made in someone else's life."

Finally, Murray came to the cafe to do what he trained to do: cook. With his main line cooks, he works diligently to perfect the chicken and sausage gumbo, and is currently experimenting with pain perdu techniques. The team puts out daily specials, such as superb bowls of white beans and shrimp over rice every Thursday. Whether the students number one or 15 on any given day, Cafe Reconcile functions at full power five days a week.

Like Cuccia and Duvernay, Murray brims with plans for Cafe Reconcile's future and gushes with hope for the hospitality program. "Ten years from now, I'd like to see the youth employed at these [community-based] businesses, with community leaders helping empower them to open their own businesses. They have the ideas, they just need the resources to be able to do those things."

Nadine Bachus has seen first-hand how kids improve during their time at Cafe Reconcile, and she says that she sings the cafe's praises "like a bird," wherever she is. At 29, Bachus was past the hospitality program's acceptance age when she first approached Reconcile (participants are generally 14 to 25 years old). But, she says, "They knew that I had goals."

Bachus first began working at 16 and has held various jobs. But as a single mother of three, she was in a long, jobless rut and looking for a jump-start when a friend's mother mentioned the cafe. "My problem was that I had a lot of experience from different backgrounds, but I didn't have any certification," Bachus says.

She remembers Cuccia warning her that she was joining a group of students far behind her in life experience. But she enjoyed playing the non-authoritative confidant to her fellow students. Bachus now works with Aramark Catering, a day job she found on her own after receiving her certificate of completion from the hospitality program. She believes the certificate was essential to her landing the job. Her unusual situation as an older student begs the question: would the hospitality program be more successful if it focused on students like Bachus, who merely needed a nudge?

She doesn't think so. "The kids have so much on their minds that sometimes they can't reach them," she says. But she believes that many of the students who go missing will find their way back. Despite their struggles to adhere to the rules, she says, they need the love and want the support.

For Oliver Duvernay, having to let a student go is especially difficult, and he agrees that he would let someone back who makes amends. "The only time we will dismiss a young man or a young woman is if we find that they don't want to be here. ... We can't help anybody like that," he says, adding that "It's a gut-wrenching thing, but you just have to make a decision."

Says Bachus: "Cafe Reconcile opens their doors right back up -- with limitations. Because you know, you're trying to prepare them for the world."

A typical Cafe Reconcile morning begins like this one, several weeks after the day the program began serving Trinity school: Cuccia, Duvernay and Murray are meeting at one of the red-topped tables donated long ago by Bally's Casino. Jennifer Page, a former cancer researcher and the cafe's new grant writer/consultant, prances down the steps with an armful of papers. Students roll silverware, also donated, into napkins at a nearby table while a pianist who occasionally performs during lunches trails his fingers along the keys. Leonard Kelly, a line cook who first volunteered at Kids Cafe during a year at Living Witness treatment center down the street, stands next to him, singing along.

A resident of Lindy's Place, a housing facility for homeless women, volunteers her knife skills in the kitchen with Willie Johnson, another line cook who lives in the neighborhood and has worked at the cafe since day one. William Addison, an Americorps Promise Fellow and the cafe's floor manager, enters with an armload of the bread Leidenheimer donates daily. Everyone looks up. No one pauses.

The cafe is funded primarily through three major donors (Immaculate Conception Jesuit Parish, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and the City of New Orleans Economic Development Fund), and Cuccia can rattle off a list of smaller funders, volunteers and collaborators, including many restaurateurs currently trying to get involved, either by sending volunteers or hiring students. His list is longer than any Oscar acceptance speech.

And while most of the clientele are clearly middle-class businesspeople who live in other areas, there is a steady, pulsating flow of customers from neighboring businesses and community foundations also aiming to revitalize the area around Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard. These include ASHE Cultural Arts Center, the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, Barrister's Gallery, Brown's Dairy, the Kids Cafe Community Garden, Living Witness, Urban Impact, and the new electronic repair store next door.

With Duvernay, Murray and Page all recently brought on board, Cuccia has had a moment to catch his breath, concentrate his work on public relations, and even to take a honeymoon -- he was married in August, 2000. Yet he repeats his mantra regularly: "There's still a lot of work to do."

And by noon, Cuccia is making his daily rounds through the bustling dining room -- shaking hands, listening to stories, eyeing plates, directing students, and always, always smiling. Despite the many challenges, the program, still in its infancy, has placed students in positions around the city, in the Court of Two Sisters, the Hilton Hotel, Joey K's, Palace Cafe and Smith & Wollensky.

At a certain point Cuccia stops between tables, and for the briefest moment his eyes are completely silent. He stares straight ahead at a wall hung with brightly colored children's paintings -- he seems to be looking not at the paintings but into them, as if they hold his next movement. And then the moment passes. Cuccia's eyes re-gain their shimmer, and he walks to the front door to grab another hand.

click to enlarge 'I'm not a restaurant man,' says hospitality program director Oliver Duvernay (pictured left, with Chef Craig Murray in center and student Cedric Burham at right). 'I came here to put my hands to the plow and do whatever it is that I can do.' - TRACIE MORRIS
  • Tracie Morris
  • 'I'm not a restaurant man,' says hospitality program director Oliver Duvernay (pictured left, with Chef Craig Murray in center and student Cedric Burham at right). 'I came here to put my hands to the plow and do whatever it is that I can do.'
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