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Steven Wells Hicks is an epicurean essayist and the author of three novels: "The Gleaner", "The Fall of Adam", and "Horizontal Adjustment," all available through amazon.com

Thursday, April 15, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Cafe Reconcile

Perhaps I have a chunk of anthracite where most people have a heart, but experience has taught me to be wary of food for worthy causes.

Throughout my childhood, I was subjected to countless pancake breakfasts and spaghetti suppers in support of Methodist church projects. Countless chicken or chili-for-charity events have punctuated my adulthood. Heaven only knows how many fundraising appeals I’ve snoozed through with a bellyful of barbecue or fried catfish.

Because I came to associate the term “good cause” with “bad food,” I went out of my way to avoid trying Café Reconcile, a lunchroom-cum-social project in the dicey Central City section of New Orleans. In the case of Café Reconcile, such judgment proved hasty. That is not to say that the scales were ripped from my eyes and a feast-laden table awaited me.

The food was workmanlike, filling and good, certainly better than expected. What makes the place irresistible is the story behind it.

It’s no secret that New Orleans is a city riddled with pockets of grinding poverty and plenty of mean streets. While it’s arguable where the Central City neighborhood might be ranked in a list that includes Gentilly, Tremé and the Lower Ninth Ward, it’s still an area where out-of-towners unfamiliar with the city might exercise caution during the day, avoid after dark and stay the hell out of after midnight.

The economic and social plights of these hardscrabble neighborhoods came under the national media spotlight in the days following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and while some of them are experiencing varying degrees of renaissance, these areas remain breeding grounds for at-risk youth, much as they have been for decades.

In 1996, two concerned community members, Tim Falcon and Craig Cuccia, started to discuss ways to address the poverty, violence and crime that beleaguered Central City’s school dropouts. Like most people in cities with large Catholic populations, the two knew that when you want to effect positive social change, call in a Jesuit priest to ramrod the project. This they did in the person of Father Harry Thompson, and together the three of them planted the seeds that would grow into Café Reconcile in the year 2000.

The centerpiece of their efforts and the foundation upon which Café Reconcile is built is Reconcile New Orleans’ Workforce Development Program, a comprehensive nine-week program through which at-risk, 16 to 22 year-olds learn the basic life, interpersonal and work skills that enable them to viably enter the foodservice workforce. To date, the program has well over 500 graduates working in the full spectrum of New Orleans’ restaurant, hospitality and industrial foodservice industries.

While lectures, demonstrations and traditional instruction are integral parts of the total curriculum, for Reconcile students, show time comes every Monday though Friday at 11 a.m., when the doors open and the place becomes a working café for the next three and a half hours.

Over the course of the nine-week program, students will work in five key positions (steward; floor service or wait staff; pantry chef; sous chef; and department chef) as the café feeds between 120 and 150 paying customers daily.

The restaurant’s menu is heavy on traditional New Orleans soul food because the ingredients are relatively inexpensive and the whole venture operates on a nonprofit basis. Equally important, however, is that this is the type of food that the student work force knows, which puts all the emphasis on learning new skills without the added challenges of learning unfamiliar cuisines as well.

The standing, five-day menu is heavy on chicken (baked dark or white and a fried breast) and also features a fried catfish or vegetable plate, all with a choice of ten sides. Po-boys, soups and salads round out the menu. Off-menu blackboard specials change daily depending upon what’s fresh, available and affordable.

Regular daily specials lean toward the traditional. Mondays are the obligatory red beans and rice. Wednesdays offer pot roast or shrimp etouffée. Thursday brings chicken three more ways and a special that is often mentioned in customer reviews found on the Internet – white beans and rice with shrimp. With its heavy white bean mash base, the dish looks remarkably similar to a thick potato soup or New England clam chowder when it arrives at the table, which I quite frankly found a little off-putting initially, but it was quite flavorsome even before I added a jolt of Tabasco.

Off-menu blackboard specials round out the menu.

One place where Café Reconcile’s kitchen seems to shine is dessert. Having heard about their Bananas Foster Bread Pudding, I doggedly ordered it, even though the day’s two other desserts seemed more tempting (a seasonal cobbler that was apricot and ginger that day, and a handsomely presented strawberry smoothie that was shown tableside). Expecting a brownish lump in a soup bowl, the café’s presentation was something much more likely to be found in a white tablecloth place than a basic culinary training school. Dressed with whipped cream, the swirled pudding was served on a plate festooned with a grid of chocolate and caramel ribbons and was an unexpectedly lovely way to finish a fairly straightforward lunch.

The most pleasant aspect of lunch at Café Reconcile is not the food; nor is it the working-class neighborhood ambience of the place. It’s the earnestness of the people who work there.

The crews who work the kitchen and the front of Café Reconcile are young men and women who grew up in the American underclass, with few prospects beyond the narcotics needle, a prison cell or the morgue. Many, if not most, dropped out of schools unable or unwilling to retrieve them from paths to failure. They come from homes not only broken but irreparable, where they had heard a lifetime of predictions of their inevitable fates of futility and come to believe them.

I don’t know how these young people are found or recruited or drafted or come to the new chances afforded them by the Reconcile New Orleans community of care. Perhaps they’ve been given a choice by a judge – Reconcile or jail, you decide. The point is that they get there, and watching them work with such untaught or forgotten concepts as responsibility, civility and essential humanity is a hope giving experience.

There is a self-consciousness to be found among the Reconcile crews. They seem reluctant to look up, let alone look you in the eye. Aware that their language skills stalled when they left school at an early age, they mumble. But damn it, these young men and women try, and they make you want to try to draw them out. The looks of surprise that come across their faces when people speak nicely to them are endearing. The smiles that come from a heartfelt thank you instead of one that’s perfunctory are priceless.

Café Reconcile is what can happen when kind people move into mean streets.

You can find far more elegant meals with more premium ingredients prepared by culinary virtuosi in dozens of places throughout New Orleans, but you’ll have to look long and hard to find one that’s any more satisfying. Thank heavens a warmhearted Jesuit remembered Luke 4:4.

Café Reconcile is located at 1631 Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in Central City.

The restaurant is open Monday through Friday for lunch only from 11:00 until 2:30.

No reservations. All major credit cards honored.

Telephone (504) 568-1157

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