Cafe Reconcile expands its menu to include construction training to rebuild its Central City neighborhood
When Cafe Reconcile reopened soon after Hurricane Katrina struck, it helped provide hot meals to the emergency workers, police and other first responders.
Today, the Central City lunch spot is serving as a first responder itself −− training young people to fill jobs in local restaurants, and helping its neighborhood continue to recover by drawing crowds for the inexpensive, down−home daily specials.
Such first−responder status is fitting for Cafe Reconcile, since it has been at the vanguard of effecting change in its neighborhood since opening in 2000, executive director Craig Cuccia said recently over a hearty lunch of white beans and rice.
“In what was once a crime−ridden neighborhood plagued by drugs and prostitution, Cafe Reconcile stood for a change,” Cuccia said. “We showed the community coming together to really collaborate −− everyone put all their other stuff aside for the greater good.”
By restoring its building, helping to clean the surrounding streets, and by providing jobs and job training, the restaurantcafe became a sign of hope for the neighborhood.
The vision of Cafe Reconcile emerged in the late ’90s under the leadership of the Rev. Harry Tompson, the legendary Jesuit priest who was then pastor of Immaculate Conception Church on Baronne Street, Cuccia said. To help stem the spiraling tide of death and destruction afflicting the downtown neighborhoods around Central City, the group, working with Tompson before he died in 2001, established Cafe Reconcile as a supportive place where at−risk youth could earn money while learning the skills necessary to get a job and break that cycle of poverty, crime and violence.
Students between the ages of 16 and 25 who join Reconcile’s six−week program learn all aspects of the restaurant business −− from working the food service line to waiting tables to dealing with customers.
“Beyond basic job skills, though, we also help teach them hands−on life skills,” Cuccia said. Those include building a sense of accountability and respect for one another, colleagues and customers, but also such basic needs as how to budget one’s money and maintain a checking account. The center also helps arrange for everything from drug counseling to literacy programs for students in need.
Through its partners and sponsors, which include many top restaurants and several hotels, graduates of the program are then connected with job openings and internships that can lead to stable careers with restaurants and hotels, Cuccia said.
By meeting the needs of young people, Reconcile also meets the growing needs of the recovering restaurant industry, where staffing remains a significant post−Katrina concern, Cuccia said.
“Whatever help they need, we help to ensure that they get it.”
Meeting those needs, along with serving the community at large, has brought Reconcile to the attention of major supporters. Chef Emeril Lagasse’s foundation recently held a fundraiser that brought in $2.5 million to support programs to aid children in New Orleans. From that, Cafe Reconcile has received a $250,000 initial grant that will be used to create the Emeril Lagasse Foundation Culinary Learning Center at the restaurant.
“Emeril wants to help them take things to the next level,” said Kristen Shannon, the foundation’s executive director. “This will help Cafe Reconcile become even more of a hub for the whole community.”
Housed on an upper floor of the cafe’s building and stocked with state−of−the−art equipment, the institute will provide more advanced culinary training as well as opportunities for expansion in catering.
“It will provide a venue for all restaurants to send their chefs to help train our students,” Cuccia said.
Lagasse’s foundation supports programs that offer developmental and educational opportunities to help young people and so its goals track those of the restaurant/cafe, Shannon said.
“We are interested in the impact on each individual life that can be touched,” she said. “At Cafe Reconcile, they know their community well, but they also know each one of these young people.”
The current program maintains that personal connection with the students by taking on seven at a time. As staffing and financing recovers to pre−hurricane levels, Cuccia said they hope to double that number.
Since its first class, Cuccia estimated that more than 325 students have gone through the program and have then gotten jobs in the local hospitality industry. Young people have dropped out of the program, Cuccia said, and some of them have fallen victim to the city’s violent crime.
“You get tested. It is challenging,” he said. “But you can’t let go.” Cuccia remains encouraged by the positive growth he sees.
In addition, the changes in the neighborhood are visible signs of a growing victory, and the bustling lunch crowds speak to that recovery.
“We get people who never would have come to this neighborhood before,” Cuccia said, noting the racial, social and economic diversity of the restaurant’s cafe patrons on a typical afternoon. The lunch crowd typically draws a mix of neighborhood residents, local artists, judges, doctors or construction workers.
And while its goals and ambitions are noble, Cuccia is well aware that good food is the bottom line.
“We knew from the start that in this town we had to offer top quality cooking. Otherwise, people would come once just to be benevolent, but they’d never come back,” he said. “We’re very pleased that we have a tremendous repeat clientele.”
Continuing its mission of meeting the needs of the community, Reconcile is going beyond the food business.
A new program modeled on the cafe’s concept will focus on construction.The construction project is the result of an ecumenical effort bringing together several different ministries.
Sponsored by Reconcile New Orleans, it is operated in collaboration with Crossroads Missions, which has long been involved in rehabilitating the Central City neighborhood. The first lots were acquired through Jericho Road, a project of the Episcopal Christ Church Cathedral.
“All of this comes from necessity,” Cuccia said. “For the neighborhood to come back, we need affordable housing for people to come back. This effort is one of our blessings from God. He is helping us to lift up the people to bring back this area.”
Like the cafe program, the project works with seven young people at a time for eight weeks.
“After that, they’re ready to get construction jobs,” Cuccia said.
The project is completing its second house now. More than two dozen more are for renovation as soon as Reconcile completes the purchase of the lots through the city’s blighted property office.
Cuccia expects the project to continue growing as the city has committed to providing land, and as the number of students enrolling in the program increases.
“They’ll learn these skills while also rebuilding their own neighborhood,” Cuccia said. “This is an area where there was only about 15 percent home ownership before Katrina. If we can increase that, say to 40 or 50 percent, the problems begin to fix themselves.”
“Working in the restaurant business or the hospitality industry may not be for everyone,” Cuccia said. The construction side opens a new arena of possibilities for the students, from carpentry to drywall work to plumbing. The ultimate goal, he said, follows the old adage that if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for life.
“We’re the fishing pole factory,” Cuccia said. “We’re here to offer a hand up, not a handout.”
1631 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.
Monday through Friday,
from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Daily lunch specials with two sides, salad, drink and dessert for $8.
Cash and check only.
For information or to enroll in the programs, call (504) 568−1157 or visit the restaurant during regular hours.
(C) 2006 The Times−Picayune. All rights reserved. INSIDE Dining & Bars
By Theodore P. Mahne, Contributing writer