The fine-dining restaurant cooking up second chances
On a recent afternoon at Cala, a contemporary Mexican restaurant in San Francisco, Candace Hightower takes reservations as cooks prep for dinner service. Two women at the restaurant’s lunchtime taco counter strip thorns from cactus leaves, and fill cups with agua fresca. “Right around now,” Hightower says with a grin, “it starts bumping.”
In many respects, Cala isn’t different from most other high-profile San Francisco restaurants: It serves sophisticated, beautifully executed food in a sophisticated, beautifully executed dining room. But unlike most San Francisco restaurants—or really, most restaurants anywhere—it actively recruits formerly incarcerated people to staff its dining room and kitchen. About 45 percent of its 40-some employees have prison records. “We seek them out,” says Emma Rosenbush, Cala’s general manager. “I want them.”
Before she started working here, Hightower had never heard of a trout tostada, much less enjoyed it. She also never thought she’d apply for a job without getting judged for the felony DUI conviction on her record; when she’d tried in the past, things would get awkward. (“Oh, that position is no longer available,” she recalls.) But at Cala, there wasn’t any awkwardness; there was just opportunity. “And to have an opportunity without judgement,” Hightower says, “was pretty amazing.”
Opened in 2015, Cala is the first U.S. restaurant from Gabriela Cámara, a legendary restaurateur in her native Mexico City. Back in Mexico, Cámara says, she has never hesitated to hire people with troubled pasts. “In restaurants, you always hire people who have issues,” she points out. “Restaurants take everybody in.” So when Rosenbush, who had previously worked in Berkeley’s Prison Law Office, approached her about hiring people with conviction histories, Cámara was game. But her open-mindedness was born as much from pragmatism as compassion: Thanks to San Francisco’s labor shortage and high cost of living, finding loyal, dedicated employees is tough. “We needed people who could give good service,” Cámara says. “It’s not just because I’m a good person. If you have staff who know how important they are, they’re more likely to do a better job.”
To find employees, Rosenbush and Cámara reached out to San Francisco’s Adult Probation Department and the Delancey Street Foundation, a nonprofit that offers residential rehabilitation services and vocational training for substance abusers and ex-convicts. While some of their new staff had prior restaurant experience, there were others who didn’t know the difference between sparkling and still water. Another didn’t know wine is made from grapes.
There were other challenges, such as the addiction issues some employees faced, as well as their need for services to help them readjust to regular working life. “All of a sudden, we were that support,” Rosenbush says. “But we’re a restaurant, not a social service.” So she reached out to the rehabilitation community to build a better support network for Cala’s employees. She and Cámara also decided to make Cala a dry restaurant (meaning employees can only drink there as guests) and adopted a hard-line stance in dealing with problems. “It’s tough love,” says Hightower. “Like, ‘don’t come here thinking this is a hand out.’ But it’s love, it’s all love.”
As she spoke, the restaurant was suffused with light and the camaraderie of its employees. Watching them work, there was no way to know who had spent time in prison and who hadn’t. And that’s the point. “You come into Cala and you can’t tell who is who,” says Cámara. “You just have a bunch of lovely people wanting to take care of you.”
The plum-plucking group gleaning fruit trees to help feed the needy
Summertime in Portland, Oregon, means that waves of homeowners are inundated with more fruit than their stomachs can handle. The city’s lush winters and warm summers lead to fruit-fat backyards: A small semi-dwarf apple tree can create up to 500 glossy apples during a season, while a full-sized apple tree can yield up to 800 pounds of fruit. That’s enough to make you never want to eat an apple pie or drink a glass of cider ever again.
Meanwhile, because of its limited shelf life, fresh food is often hard to find at food pantries and expensive to buy in stores. So, since 2006, the Portland Fruit Tree Project has been rescuing fruit from homeowners whose backyard bounties have become too fruitful, as well as from farms with unpicked fruit to spare. Its aim is to reduce food waste and increase access to healthy, fresh food. From mid-June through mid-November, small groups of volunteers snatch up everything from early plums to quince, persimmon, and kiwi near the end of the growing season. Harvest program manager Nicole Weinstock remembers helping to harvest 600 pounds of shiro plums, a yellow variety that clusters tightly to the branches. To see and harvest so much fruit “was a great joy, a great shock, and a great sticky mess in all equal parts,” Weinstock says.
To participate, homeowners add themselves to a volunteer list, and their trees are vetted for access and health. Then they contact PFTP two weeks before their fruit ripens. Half of the fruit picked at each event is divided among the volunteers, and the remaining half is donated to local food pantries, food banks, and health clinics. Some of their events are family-friendly, allowing kids to get up close to their food. PFTP also provides Spanish-language harvests to support the increasing number of Latino residents in Portland. In 2016, the PFTP hosted 117 harvest events, gleaning 63,000 pounds of fruit that would have likely gone to waste otherwise.
Tshombé Brown, PFTP’s communications and office coordinator, started volunteering as a harvest coordinator in 2008 as a way to make friends in his new city—not surprising, considering that people frequently bond over food (as well as hard labor). A few years ago, Brown says, a woman met someone at an orchard party; the two eventually became good friends. Now they make sure to sign up for the same harvest every year, as a “friendiversary” celebration.
The project is a reminder that not all the fruit in Oregon comes from orchards outside the city limits. Just knowing how many homeowners are hiding juicy blueberries, pears, and peaches in their backyard makes it that much more intriguing to explore the city, hunting for edible treasure.
The butcher training Army Special Forces to stay healthy
In February 2014, Jason Nauert, director of the Rocky Mountain Institute of Meat, a Colorado Springs butchery school, received an odd email from the U.S. Army.
Sgt. 1st Class Myron Billingsley was in a bind; his Special Forces soldiers were getting sick off sub-par foreign meat while stationed in remote parts of the world. Did Nauert—a butcher with zero military experience—have any ideas on how to help these soldiers?
A couple weeks later, the pair met for beers at a Colorado Springs brewpub. Nauert told Billingsley he could take the American Culinary Federation’s professional butchery course and adapt it to the needs of soldiers out in the elements—no walk-in coolers, no butcher knives, no luxuries. “I had to get creative about my approach and development of the course,” Nauert says. “Chefs are in a controlled environment, or as controlled as a kitchen can be. The soldiers are left to the elements of the outdoors.”
That fall, Nauert started training Special Forces with a six-day, hands-on course. Soldiers learned to identify healthy animals, butcher them, store the meat, and cook as much of the animal as possible to maximize nutrition. Army Staff Sgt. Brandon Mayo took Nauert’s course in 2015. Mayo was attached to a Special Forces unit sent to remote locations in Africa. They didn’t have a base with food supplies, and in order to feed themselves, they’d have to find a local market, buy whatever animal was available, and butcher it. “None of us had any real training in how to do that, and how to do it in a sanitary way so the guys don’t get sick,” Mayo says.
Besides learning how to butcher cleanly and quickly to avoid spoilage, Mayo says one of the best things Nauert taught him was how to cook everything on the animal, using scraps for sausage or head cheese, a cold cut. “It’s better-tasting field food,” Mayo says. “I’m still not eating head cheese, though.”
The Minnesota communities coming together to make (and break) bread
Mitchell, South Dakota, is home to a sprawling Corn Palace, adorned with murals made from grain. Houston has an oddball cottage constructed exclusively of beer cans. And in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, the United Methodist Church there has become widely known as “the bread church.”
In this case, though, there are no baguette columns, and no one is walking on sourdough tiles. The church’s nickname came about through its work creating a network of community ovens across the state.
Community ovens have been in use for centuries, not only as a vehicle for firing up baked goods but also as a way to bring people together to share stories and a common resource. Primarily wood burning and built outdoors, the ovens have seen a swell in popularity, fueled by the success of other pieces of the “sharing” movement—like tool lending libraries and seed banks. Equal parts ancient and novel, the ovens have popped up from Colorado to Vermont, with Minnesota serving as a (somewhat unlikely) national hub.
“Our oven is a way that we can reach out to the community in a unique manner,” says Mike Faust, who helped construct the White Bear Lake community oven—and then nine subsequent ovens across the state. At its largest event, the oven churned out 180 pizzas, and then gave the slices away for free. “It attracted people and provided a comfortable way to get to know each other.”
As for oven construction, Faust uses a full-on brick-and-mortar style, which means the ovens require several hours of preheating before loaves can go in. Others, like David Cargo, a community oven advocate and leader in the St. Paul Bread Club, uses a “stacked brick” model, which allows the vessel to heat up speedily. But there’s no technique rivalry to be found here. In true “Midwestern Nice” fashion, Cargo says all methods are good ones. “There’s room in this world for both the staple and the paper clip, you know?”
And if you’re hoping to build an oven of your very own, Faust recommends determining how you’ll use it beforehand. White Bear Lake’s purview includes baking classes, a “breadstick communion” church service, and a charity-focused “baking with a purpose” day. (A large oven can hold up to a whopping 25 loaves at a time.) In Minneapolis’ Kingfield neighborhood, pizza nights have been a focus ever since volunteers constructed a public oven in 2015. The opportunities for creation—and connection—seem limitless.
“Minnesotans like community ovens partially because of our culture,” says Cargo. “There’s a focus on community and mutual reliance much more so than self-reliance. We like to work together.”
The award-winning matzo balls that are eliminating food waste
Funded through Kickstarter, fueled by leftover chicken, and staffed by volunteers, Rooster Soup Co. is a hybrid creature that just also happens to be one of the top tables in Philadelphia.
It started with James Beard Award–winning chef Michael Solomonov’s Federal Donuts, which turns out doughnuts like strawberry-lavender and banana cream pie, but also addictive gourmet fried chicken. All that chicken, though, had a downside: Every week, they found themselves with more than 500 pounds of unused chicken parts. So, in January, Federal Donuts partnered with the nonprofit Broad Street Ministry and opened Rooster Soup Co., a retro-chic luncheonette, to turn that chicken into soup.
This isn’t your ordinary diner-style chicken noodle. We’re talking smoked matzo ball soup, made with schmaltz and fresh turmeric, that locals slurp down at the long counter and banquette seating. (Plastic-covered menus are a
knowing nod toward old-school authenticity.) The luncheonette serves lunch and dinner (plus breakfast on the weekends), with Solomonov’s signature touches seen in a Yemenite chicken pot pie and a BLT that subs in a potato latke for lettuce. But the soup, which Solomonov calls “the ultimate comfort food,” is the star of the show.
One-hundred percent of the profits go to Broad Street Ministry, which provides social services and meals for Philadelphia’s most vulnerable citizens, in a neat—and waste-free—circle of food.
The refugees and immigrants feeding each other, and Seattle
Back at home in Ukraine, Iryna Mykhalchuk and her mother-in-law would make giant 10-liter batches of borscht each Sunday, cooking the ruby-red beet soup in a pot so big Mykhalchuk needed to climb onto a step stool to stir it. As the simmering beef stock perfumed the air, she’d stir in julienned beets—rather than grated, as they often are in the Russian version of the dish—potatoes, and green cabbage (another uniquely Ukrainian feature). The chunky soup brimmed with vegetables, bubbling in an enormous portion that would feed the entire house: her own three children, her husband’s twin brother and his family, her in-laws, even her grandparents-in-law. When they sat down to eat, she’d toast bread in a pan with oil, butter, and fresh garlic until crisp and fragrant, a piece for everyone as they sat down to Sunday supper.
Now, when she cooks borscht for her family of five in Seattle, where she’s lived for a year and a half, she has trouble translating the recipe into smaller quantities. But when executive chef Lisa Nakamura, who once cooked in the venerated French Laundry kitchen and has run several of her own critically acclaimed restaurants, asked her to recreate it as a restaurant recipe for Ubuntu Street Café in Kent, Washington, Mykhalchuk was ready. She even paired it with little rolls she calls babushka.
Ubuntu, which opened in March in the Seattle suburb, is the teaching kitchen for Project Feast, a nonprofit designed to “transform lives by providing pathways to sustainable employment in the food industry” by training refugees and immigrants in the kitchen. Originally, that came through a six-week, part-time kitchen classroom program. But student feedback indicated the need for a more intense program, and community feedback encouraged something more interactive.
After a year of work, the result is Ubuntu, which brings a small number of apprentices into a four-month program.
The menu at Ubuntu, like a United Nations of culinary hits, marries the diverse background of the immigrants and refugees in the current and previous apprentice programs with the logistical realities of running a training cafe. A lentil stew from the small African nation of Eritrea shares space with a Burmese chicken curry, a world of flavors on a tiny—just three appetizers, four entrees, and two desserts—menu. Beyond ensuringthat the menu accommodates dietary restrictions, founder and executive director Veena Prasad wanted to make sure the apprentices filled in gaps in their cooking knowledge. “Cake isn’t a thing in all cultures,” for example, so the menu includes Mexican-inspired tres leches cupcakes for them to learn on, Prasad says.
Tuesdays at Ubuntu are for prepping. Mykhalchuk rolls out small lamb meatballs called kofta, while her fellow apprentice, Tenaye Adem, grates onions. Two metal tables are pushed together to form a counter, and chef Nakamura keeps a watchful eye on them. She’s making crepes, which will later be lunch for the team.
Adem looks up from her onions and, with a nod and a look, points out a bowl of ginger that Mykhalchuk forgot to add to the meatballs. Mykhalchuk scrapes the portion of the pan already rolled out, adds the ginger, and massages the mixture together. The women spend their days helping each other, working as a team to decipher recipes or turn their own home cooking into a catering dish, puzzling over instructions with heads together or assisting in finding the right measuring spoon. Nakamura watches, occasionally guiding, but mostly letting them work on their own. “I tend to French-ify everything,” she says. Instead, she works with the women to walk the fine line between adapting the dish to restaurant cooking and Westernizing it.
The cafe is housed in a century- old train station, along with non profit offices, a martial arts studio, and a sushi restaurant. The hall ends in a small room where few mismatched tables and chairs mingle, and a glass wall offers a view into the cafe kitchen. A chalkboard on the counter greets visitors in a half-dozen languages-a message echoed by the universal aroma of welcome: spiced stews simmering over a low flame. Adam takes a quick break from chopping onions to chat on the phone with one of her two daughters back in Ethiopia, to whom she speaks about once a week.
Despite her enthusiasm for the training program, Adem acknowledges that her struggle with arthritis makes her unlikely to end up working in a restaurant. She walks with a slight limp, keeping one leg almost straight. The 48- year-old grandmother is hardly suited for the arduous physical work of a restaurant kitchen. For 30 years, her husband worked as a truck driver in the U.S. and she stayed home in Ethiopia with her daughters. Most winters, when business was slow, he’d come home for a few months. Four years ago, with her daughters both married and soon to have children of their own, she joined her husband. But waiting this long has its downside: She no longer has any sway, legally, to bring her daughters to the U.S. Now, her husband’s health issues force him to work less at his job, which also supports their children and grandchildren and Adem’s mother in Ethiopia. She hopes to use her newly improved English and kitchen skills to find a job in elder care, as a cook or an aide, to help support her family.
Mykhalchuk is also unsure about ending up in a restaurant kitchen. In Ukraine, she ran a school kitchen, cooking for 250 kids five days a week. She was somewhat ambivalent about leaving her home in western Ukraine, pulled here along with 17 other family members by her brother-in-law. “My son had a dream about America,” Mykhalchuk says, half-smiling. Her kids, ages 3, 8, and 10, love it here—they have video games they couldn’t afford in Ukraine, and plenty of nature nearby. She’s more hesitant, but admits that Seattle’s beauty has found a place in her heart, too.“Every day I see Mount Rainier.”
Both women cite communicating as their biggest challenge, though by the 12th week of the program they both seem able to easily converse in English, complete with kitchen terms and jokes. Adem knew little English before coming to the U.S.; she wasn’t able to go to school long enough as a kid to learn any. Mykhalchuk, too, says she learned most of her English not only here in the U.S., but here in the kitchen. Her husband, a scientist, works with other Ukrainians and is still hesitant to go to the grocery store alone for fear of conversation. But not her, she shakes her head. “I have lots of friends I learn from. American friends, Ukrainian friends, others.” She smiles at Adem.
The cafe opens at 11 a.m., but on a recent Wednesday, the first customer doesn’t wander in until past noon. Kent doesn’t have much in the way of foot traffic or lunch business. Nakamura says theyusually have from 15 to 30 people in a day, but today is slow and only five orders come through. They stay busy, though. Adem is learning to make dal, an Indian lentil stew, for a catering job that week. It doesn’t seem too different from the misir wot—Ethiopian lentil stew—that she taught the others the previous week, but she’s intenton following the recipe Nakamura provides. Similarities and differences between food among cultures comes up often here. “I thought I knew how to make rice!” Adem says, eyes widening as she shakes her head.
The cafe seems to run smoothly at this point, with Mykhalchuk assembling the orders and Adem manning the register, combining the English garnered here with customer service skills learned at the front desk of a hotel in Addis Ababa. But the group started with four apprentices: Two ended up dropping out. Prasad, an immigrant from India herself, explains that committing to the full program is hard for the immigrants and refugees who participate. Appointments with doctors, agencies, and resettlement programs usually need to happen during the work day, and public bus commutes through the southern suburbs can be lengthy. The time commitment to the program, which does include a small stipend and course credits at Highline College, was too much for half the group.
But part of her mandate, as Prasad sees it, is to push people out of their comfort zone—whether that’s teaching kitchen skills to refugees, or introducing people to foods they haven’t tasted beforeand to the stories of people who bring those foods to the Seattle area. Things don’t always work out perfectly: Participants drop out, and emails ranging from mild complaints to racist rants flood her inbox. Prasad takes it in stride, learning how to improve the apprenticeship to increase retention and reshaping the programming to better integrate the community.“Seeing discomfort shows me where Project Feast should look to help. As a nonprofit we can take the time to educate.” Though the cafe is new and even Project Feast is only a few years old, Prasad isalready thinking of how she might improve the next session of the apprentice program. The same thing that inspired her to start Project Feast guides her now: “Food is a good way to have a conversation.”
When the whole team sits down to lunch together each day, most meals begin with a conversation about the food on the table. Sometimes it’s serious—how the eggplant stew reminds Prasad of baingan ka bharta, a smoky Indian dish—other times, it’s a joke about who will eat the most tacos. When Nakamura sets down the crepes she made that morning, Mykhalchuk’s eyes light up. “Blinchiki!” she exclaims. She uses Google to find the English word for poppy seeds, her filling of choice, and then goes on to describe how she cooked them in Ukraine: sweet cheese fillings for brunch, savory chicken and mushrooms in the evening, with a bright, creamy sauce on top, maybe some fruit inside for dessert. Like her borscht recipe, she specifies tiny differences that make them uniquely Ukrainian.
The staff lunch at Ubuntu is a microcosm of the cross-cultural culinary discussion Prasad encourages on a larger scale with Project Feast. Ideally, she wants to bring people together over food both foreign and familiar at the cafe and through the organization’s evening events—potlucks and a dinner series called Migrating Meals. It’s a translation of culture through shared ritual, and that’s at its most obvious during Ubuntu’s family meal.
Mykhalchuk smiles nostalgically at the memory of making blinchiki for her kids at the same stove she stirred the giant pot of borscht. “My favorite.”