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.”
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