August 15th, 2011
12:10 PM ET
Share this on:

The smoky aroma of chicken and sausage gumbo fills the air inside Café Reconcile. A moist, tender pot roast emerges from the oven while the timid hands of novice knife holders chop onions and peppers.

It’s two hours before lunch time inside Café Reconcile and Chef Joe Smith sounds like an old-gospel preacher filled with the Holy Spirit teaching a small group of young men and women how to bring New Orleans-style food to life.

“It’s called soul food because there was no measuring, they just knew how they felt,” Chef Joe tells his captivated audience as they prepare the day’s lunch menu. “I feel it!”

But this isn’t your ordinary New Orleans kitchen. Chef Joe isn’t just teaching the mechanics of cooking. This is the kitchen of life.

Chef Joe tells his audience that the real world will judge you like they were judging the pot roast, with its charred, unappetizing crust. After they take a closer look at the pot roast, the students discover that it might be ugly on the outside, but it's tasty and beautiful on the inside.

“We’re not only impacting souls, we’re changing souls,” Chef Joe tells CNN as his pupils listen, spellbound. “That’s our main point is to teach these young people how to live.”

Ten years ago Café Reconcile opened as a small, non-profit restaurant sitting in a dismal section of Central New Orleans. This café serves food, but it’s also about saving young boys and girls from the poverty and violence that plagues their neighborhoods.

It’s an inspirational job-training program that’s prepared more than 600 young people to work in some of the finest restaurants and hotels in New Orleans. The restaurant is so well respected that it has the support of New Orleans’ celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse and John Besh.

Every 12 weeks, a new class of Reconcile Students comes through the restaurant. They’re put through a three week “life skills” course where they learn interpersonal and work techniques.

The students work as the chefs, busboys, waiters, dishwashers and hosts. For veterans of the restaurant business like Chef Joe, it’s amazing to see the Café turn out a daily lunch menu with a totally inexperienced crew working a kitchen. Every new class means a new class of restaurant workers.

“This is an amazing kitchen,” said Chef Joe. “We start all over (with every class). You’ll find no restaurant that flips their staff like we do.”

They learn every facet of the restaurant business and learn a lot more about life along the way.

22-year-old Leonard Alvis credits Café Reconcile with saving his life. Alvis says he’s been in and out of jail “about four or five times” for drug-related charges. He says his time before Café Reconcile was a “wreck” with no future, but now Alvis dreams of owning his own business.

“This is more than just working in a restaurant,” Alvis told CNN while he worked as the Café’s host welcoming the lunchtime crowd. “You got people showing you the right way. It’s like family.”

Café Reconcile’s guardian angel is Sister Mary Lou Specha. She’s a tall, white, Catholic nun from Iowa with a big smile and an undeniable connection with her mostly African-American students.

“It don’t matter if I’m white, green, purple or black. What matters is that I care,” Sister Mary Lou Specha told CNN. “It’s really where I feel God’s called to do it, called me to walk with the poor so we can break those legs of poverty.”

Each day of the 12-week program starts with breakfast and a prayer circle. The students share stories of their personal struggles and frustrations. Sister Mary Lou and the small full-time staff of Café Reconcile help the students work through the trials.

But often, the harsh reality of where these students come from hits home for Sister Mary Lou. On this Wednesday morning in August, a student asks that the group pray for a friend who was murdered over the weekend.

“I can not believe what I hear from them or what they’ve had to deal with daily. It’s unbelievable,” said Sister Mary Lou.

“Some of them have to live in abandoned buildings, or can’t feed their children. They’ve been physically and sexually abused. It terrorizes me.”

The mission of Café Reconcile is to inspire these young men and women to escape the grasp of poverty and show them there are people who believe in them.

Sister Mary Lou Specha says the poor get judged most harshly, and are often dismissed as “lazy.” Café Reconcile gives people a chance to get to know the faces of the poor.

“It just shows what positive encouragement, self-esteem building and just a community that loves and cares about them can do for a person in a short amount of time,” said Sister Mary Lou.

Since graduating high school, 22-year-old Causey Davis says he wasted most days smoking marijuana, going job to job and not being a good father to his two children.

Causey is exactly the kind of student Sister Mary Lou says brings Café Reconcile. He failed a drug test and got kicked out of the Reconcile program last year. But the Café gave him a second chance.

Davis made the most of it and just landed a job at the Chateau Bourbon, a New Orleans hotel in the French Quarter. He has the kind of smile and personality that lights up the famed streets of New Orleans’ French Quarter. But the smile hides painful reality of his life.

Davis lived out of a car until a church group recently offered him enough money to pay for a few months rent. Davis took CNN to his neighborhood and showed us his home; a mattress on the floor is the only furnishing in the apartment.

“Either it’s this or being homeless,” Davis said. “I’m grateful for a roof.”

Davis says Café Reconcile has put him on the right track to find good work that will help him provide for the future and help him care for his small children.

“I have faith,” Causey said as he sat in his dreary apartment. “I have a strong belief that I will be successful and nothing will stop me this time. Nothing.”

The novice class of restaurateurs conquers another lunchtime rush at Café Reconcile. Chef Joe is a true believer in Café Reconcile’s mission but he’s also a chef who understands the reality of the restaurant business.

“People will come for the mission. They’ll come and support the kids,” Chef Joe said. “But they won’t keep coming if you don’t have good food.”

The customers keep coming back. On an average day, the café serves about 150 people during its lunch hours. The Café is also about to launch a major renovation and expansion of its 5-story, 12-thousand square foot building.

Sister Mary Lou Specha smiles and when she’s asked what this restaurant means to her, tears clouds her eyes and her voice cracks.

“When a young person says to me, ‘Sister, I really love you.’ You can’t begin to know what that does to my heart,” said Sister Mary Lou. “I can’t give up because they need an opportunity.”

Previously - How food saved the soul of New Orleans and A Secret Supper in the Big Easy

Posted by:
Filed under: Charity • Local Heroes • New Orleans • New Orleans

soundoff (84 Responses)
  1. me

    With a little practice and some kid-approved trial runs, I mastered a low calorie, low carbohydrate banana berry protein smoothie. Up ahead a building, which looked a bit like a hotel, could be seen.

    March 20, 2014 at 3:54 am |
  2. home

    Pies (pyes) made their appearance in England during the 12th century. It makes its own nest by folding a leaf over and securing it with silk.

    January 22, 2014 at 10:34 pm |
  3. Robin Foster

    Why these peole feel they have a right to pick and choose an ccupation, religion, , medication, apartment, etc. for people who are poor is beyond me. I hate this philosphy I hate the way that this place works, it's corrupt and I'd never see good in ot, from EXPERIENCE. I think it's communist behavior. I odn't get it.

    December 19, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
  4. Robin Foster

    I had to stop reading after I read – prayer circle in the ad. Things never really change. I'd be so offended by it that I wouldn't go if it were the only place that I'd be ALLOWED to work. That's DISGUSTING.

    December 19, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
  5. Naomi

    America needs Christian education. We sure need to feed the poor but everyone must be taught to work hard with honesty, using brain at the same time. Seeking easy money is a disease in rich countries.

    August 15, 2011 at 11:04 pm |
  6. watt3502

    During the days of JESUS CHRIST, HE did not fuss with the governing authority, neither did HE channel HIS ministry through the governing authority. As Christians, we need to live and walk in the foot steps of JESUS CHRIST.
    Cafe Reconcile – an excellent example!

    August 15, 2011 at 6:14 pm |
  7. Susan Nieuwenhuis

    Beautiful story!! Very heartwarming and uplifting!!! Oh, that there were other places that give opportunities to those who struggle and need a wonderful skill.

    August 15, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
  8. A

    Wonderful story! I hope it inspires many to get out there and contribute to their communities.

    August 15, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
  9. Mrs. Kendall Elder

    I really must respond to say how "AWESOME!" this program is for the youth, troubled or not, may God richly Bless you Sister Mary Lou!!! :-)
    Thank you.

    August 15, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
  10. cbr

    Here is a story that deserves front page headlines. A person making a difference by doing not saying.


    August 15, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
  11. Ceelstial1

    Loves the lil philosophy from the head chef. Who knew an onion had a feminine aspect? I actually love that it was a hefty guy who did this food report, I just don't take skinny ppl talking about food seriously.

    August 15, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  12. nolalady2

    Cafe Reconcile is one part of a three-part outreach mission of Immaculate Conception (Jesuit) Church in New Orleans. The church also runs a school for inner city kids (Good Shepherd) and a homeless shelter (The Harry Tompson Center). Harry Tompson was the late pastor who initiated these outreach programs, but sadly died before he could see them to fruition. Jesuit has done a lot for the community!

    August 15, 2011 at 4:47 pm |

      THE JESUITS have always been my favorite order within the Catholic Church. They are a teaching order (ancient)
      who was born & raised in NO. Shame them if you must. If they don't share their wealth, suggest- no–BOYCOTT THEM. May Almighty God continue to aid you all. Oh! and the church grp who gave the young man a roof cld have gvn him some furniture, etc. as well. LET'S NOT BE STINGY, FOLKS!!!

      August 15, 2011 at 9:18 pm |
  13. PeterD

    Barack Obama has done absolutely Nothing to inspire Balcks to move away from Needy to be Prosperous But This Nun is doing it.

    August 15, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
    • DB

      The president is not supposed to take sides when it comes to race. If he was only taking up for Blacks, then the Caucasians would complain that he's not diverse enough. President Obama can't win for losing!!! I'm so sick of the republicans ALWAYS trying to find something to say and use against him!!!! It's not enough that he was voted in!!! It's not enough that he is a Harvard grad!!! The truth of the matter is you all can't get over the fact that he is the FIRST AFRICAN-AMERICAN sitting in the White House!! Get a life!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      August 15, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
      • Rick Sanchez@DB

        Somebody changed my channel from CNN to Faux News.....This is still a Food Blog,right?

        August 15, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
      • Jo

        Well done.

        August 15, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
      • ohsnap

        THANK YOU!

        August 15, 2011 at 6:32 pm |
      • dml

        Well said, DB!! Peter, get a life, get a clue or just get laid.

        August 16, 2011 at 7:14 pm |

      Yo, PeterD: When will you and others get it through your heads that OBAMA IS NOT, NEVER HAS BEEN, AND NEVER WILL BE DOWN WITH THE CAUSE-UNLESS IT'S POLITICALLY EXPEDIENT.

      August 15, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
  14. James Barrison

    The sister made a valid point with the statement that many believe the poor are lazy. It's true. This country will only tolerate visually successful people. If you’re unemployed, there must be a reason. It’s out in the open that the hiring companies don't want to deal with, as though you were let go to cull the previous herd, when now in most cases it was a tax dodge by the conservatives to protect big business at the cost of American workers. If you were caught and convicted of a crime you will be a criminal for the rest of your life or forced to work minimum wage jobs if you’re lucky. Keep in mind that many if not most people are guilty to some degree of the same crimes (except crimes of violence) but just never got caught If you appear to be out of money there is no way anyone will hire you, because you should have never gotten that way.
    It's the same for those of us afflicted with age the those with health issues. It’s getting harder and harder to be a proud citizen of a country that pays a footballer a 5 year contract more than 30 teachers, 30 cops and 30 medical researchers would hope to make in the same time period combined.
    I’ve paid taxes since I was 18 and served 10 years in the military (Viet Nam {yes the we don’t support the troops war}) and by the grace of God have been able to stay employed all but 1.5 years in the last 43 years and know it’s tough to get behind and that’s a bloody shame.

    August 15, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
  15. Me

    THIS is the teachings of Jesus! What a great story :)

    August 15, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
  16. Dr Perry Fisher

    We blacks need to cook up some degrees

    August 15, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
    • DR. Spock's the Big knob on the right..turn it clockwise to HIGH!!

      August 15, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
  17. Melissa

    Wow. A christian who walks the walk and doesn't just talk the talk. That gives me some hope.

    August 15, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
    • Capercorn

      Christians who aren't hypocrites rarely make the news, unless it is a slow news day.

      August 15, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
    • watto3502

      During the days of JESUS CHRIST, HE did not fuss with the governing authority, neither did he channel HIS ministry through the governing authority. As Chriistians, we need to truly walk and live in the foot steps of JESUS CHRIST.
      Cafe Reconcile – an excellent example!

      August 15, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
  18. noot

    What a wonderful thing this chef is doing! I hope he gets asked to be in a Mardi Gras parade. I have only been to New Orleans once and it was after Katrina and the heart and bravery of the citizens is amazing.

    And congratulations and thank you to the students who are making this venture successful! Keep doing them and yourselves proud.

    If I ever get back to the Big Easy, I will certainly make this restaurant is at the top of my to do list.

    August 15, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
  19. Carrie T.

    YUM....that food looks GOOD.

    August 15, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  20. Carrie

    I eat here every time I'm in NOLA and it's always such an amazing experience. The food is great (the roast beef po' boy and catfish atchafalaya are to die for), the service is extraordinary, and it's a homey little place. Take extra cash to throw these kids a huge tip, they deserve. We tip $50 every time we're in because we know it helps them out so much.

    August 15, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
  21. cope

    Wonderful, wonderful story – God Bless You Sister! Oh, if there were only more and more places such as Cafe Reconcile. (And being a Southern gal – every morsel they served looked delicious)...

    August 15, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
  22. Tim Liao

    What a wonderful inspirational story. Keep up the good work and don't care what the Haters say!

    August 15, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  23. Jim@Sister Mary Lou

    It is my hope that this message reaches you...Bless YOU Sister. I saw New Orleans after Katrina and have seen it rebound for months after that. Your faith,wisdom and direction have helped so many young people in this beautiful city. Thank You,and I will also say,"Sister,I really Love You".

    August 15, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
  24. yo

    it will be good till restaurant gets robbed lol

    August 15, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
    • Matt

      Hahahahaha! I'm laughing at you being a complete azz wipe! Hahahahaha!

      August 15, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • Juana

      What a dirtbag.

      August 15, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
    • Jo

      Know something they don't? Got a date picked out? Funny, this story makes normal people feel good.

      August 15, 2011 at 6:14 pm |
  25. Helping Hands

    In life we find those who will and those who won't.Thank God this man and womens vision to do for other's. We can sit back and find fault with everything in life ( no hair nets and all) but comeout the box and look at the Bigger Picture here. People lives have been and will be changed. Don't worry about the small things in life that have held you down.Look and see the good and the love that these poeple have for the children in the state.Instead of sitting back doing nothing.Get up and help someone yourself. Peace.... Wish i lived closer to enjoy some of that greatness!Keep on keeping on.

    August 15, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
  26. Nola29

    These type of innovative solutions have taken hold in post-katrina New Orleans. The city realized that it had to drastically change its course in order to preserve its existence and its wonderful culture. Cafe Reconcile was ahead of its time and has proven to be a catalyst for not only helping its employees who go on to help in New Orleans's large restaurant industry but also for helping the neighborhood it's in slowly redevelop.

    August 15, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
  27. WWRRD

    This is wonderful. We need more of this type of place. This job training is effective and doesn't cost millions in federally funded tax dollars. Way To Go Chef Joe!! You are a hero!!!

    August 15, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
  28. theresa johnson

    Great opportunity for the youth.... well done. PLEASE have all of your kitchen staff wear gloves

    August 15, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
    • Josh

      Actually, most kitchen staff, anywhere you go, do not wear gloves, they clean their hands and arms, and cook the food properly. Gloves get in the way and could add un-wanted flavor to food.

      August 15, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
    • colin in Florida

      Great article, great job Chef.

      I am a chef, and in Florida (and most states) you only wear gloves when you are touching food that is ready to eat. The onions and pepper that the students are chopping are going into something like a Gumbo or Jambalaya, where they will be heated to temperatures way above that necessary for safety. I suspect that Chef teaches them when it is necessary to use gloves.

      And even then, in most places you can use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, which is just as effective as gloves.

      By the way Theresa, do YOU wear gloves at home in your kitchen? If not, why not? Our forebears cooked and ate food for thousands of years without gloves and we are still here to talk about it.

      August 15, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • Tim Liao

      I was thinking the other day I think people who make my sushi should wear gloves. Doesn't sushi seem like the type of food you want to make sure 100% the person making it washes their hand completely.

      August 15, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • Tim Liao

      They probably wear gloves when they form the crabcakes. That is a food preparation to wear gloves for.

      August 15, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
  29. TheTruth72

    Picture 7 above. The guy on the left with the '3' on his shirt reminds me of Kel Mitchel from the Nickelodeon show "All That" and "Kenan and Kel".

    August 15, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
  30. Russflorida

    Amazing!! I love New Orleans, lived there in the late 90s. I wish every city took care of its own like this!!

    August 15, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
  31. Vivienne

    What an awesome mission!!!! We are here ONLY to serve God by serving humanity and that is what these folk are doing!!! Peace and Blessings Without Number to the employees and the employed/trainees! The world should look more like this.

    August 15, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
  32. Alicia Jessop

    What a wonderful story of the strength of the city of New Orleans and its commitment to give its SOUL to helping its citizens succeed.

    August 15, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
  33. Chandra

    This story brings tears to my eyes and makes me believe there is still good in this world. Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime. You go sister-thank you for being an inspiration to the rest of the world and showing compassion when others would not.

    August 15, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • Ceelstial1

      Don't ever be fooled Chandra, there is ALWAYS still good in the world, and it will be that way for eternity.

      August 15, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
  34. Bates

    Damn, no hair nets or chef hats for the people working back there? Doesn't seem very sanitary if you ask me.

    August 15, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • simon

      may be they were having a class and not actually serving to customers.

      August 15, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
    • colin in Florida

      Not required in most cases. I am a chef, and only people with long hair need to wear hair nets. It is not required by the Food Code in most places.

      August 15, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
      • Bates

        The one kid in that video had some Bob Marley dreads going on.

        August 15, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
  35. tim

    this place is amazing. i have eaten here and loved it! great food great service and great program to help people succeed in life

    August 15, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
  36. Lanfear

    That's a great program! If I am ever in the area, I'll drop in for a bite.

    August 15, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
  37. EnergyBeing3

    Getting kids off the streets and helping them learn skills with a few moral lessons is great. I'm just wondering though if they'll be taught about proper food choices so they don't become overweight and obese? American's are addicted to sugar and fat. We also need to be careful of fried foods.

    August 15, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • Kelly

      Really? THAT's your takeaway from this story? That the young adults might learn to make something with sugar?

      August 15, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • bob

      Wow, really?

      August 15, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • regi

      I think you need to feed your brain a little more sugar so you can think outside the box. Afterall, sugar is brain food. That might explain your position.

      August 15, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
  38. Dan

    Cafe Reconcile does a great, great service for New Orleans. Amazing food and amazing people. Another developing program is Liberty's Kitchen who has a similar path for kids to change their life. So many generous people in this city. WHO DAT!

    August 15, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
  39. aubrie

    Excellent... Give these kids skills and something to be proud of, and you've helped them for life.

    August 15, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
  40. Louisiana Man

    Only the good, church going, christian, family valued republican hypocrites equate the poor with being lazy.
    They've been brainwashed that if a person is in dire straights and needs assistance, it must be self inflicted.
    Thank goodness that these thugs from the GOP has NEVER been unemployed, applied for government assistance, ALWAYS had health insurance- YEA RIGHT!!! HYPOCRITES

    August 15, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
    • RichardHead

      Is that you,Doug Kershaw? Play that fiddle.

      August 15, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
    • Zorn

      Good to see you don't subscribe to stereotyping, like all those evil conservatives you hate so much.

      And it's "straits", moron.

      August 15, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
      • Louisiana Man

        You should know about stereotyping- you and yours wrote the book on it-
        GOP drones are the antithesis of small government- you gorge at the public trough, belch, then accuse others of sucking up the reserves. I saw it first hand in LA when Katrina hit. Those BIG GOVERNMENT opponents and haters were FIRST in line with palms up for all the bounties and goodies that big brother had to offer. HYPOCRITES at its finest.

        August 15, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
  41. chris

    I miss New Orleans. Do you know what it means, to miss New Orleans.............. especially the food.

    August 15, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
    • tim

      yes, yes i do. i have eaten at this cafe too. best catfish po boy ever.

      August 15, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
  42. Mike

    The Lord helps those who help themselves. This is an inspirational story.

    August 15, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      What has that phrase got to do with this story? I mean it doesnt appear in the bible and actually has its roots in Ancient Greece.

      August 15, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
  43. Great

    Great Mission, Good Cause!.Wish you all success!

    August 15, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
  44. demogal

    If they can compete in the intense New Orleans restaurant market, they must be dishing out good eats. What a wonderful mission!

    August 15, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • colin in Florida

      I agree-with one caveat. With only a small permanent staff, and all that free labor, their labor costs are very low, helping them compete.

      August 15, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
  45. Ashley


    August 15, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
  46. Multi-Tasking @ Work

    it all looks great..........*drool

    August 15, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  47. Truth

    That catfish looked awfully good...

    August 15, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
| Part of

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,989 other followers