New Orleans, LA –
The kitchen at Crescent City Cafe is slammed at eight in the morning on a recent Saturday. Cooks plate the day's specials as fast as they can, expediters urge them on and servers constantly cycle through the line, picking up two or three dishes at a time to shuttle to the dining room.
It could the morning shift at any busy restaurant. But Crescent City Cafe is different. The guests won't pay a thing, and when meal service is finished the volunteers who make Crescent City Cafe work will sit down to their own breakfast together, take a deep breath and think about the gift they just served to strangers in need.
The cafe is an ongoing service project from a grassroots group of young adults in New Orleans led by organizer Kim Thompson. The objective, at its simplest, is to serve a breakfast on the first Saturday of the month to people who are homeless or in such dire financial straights that every free meal is a big boost. It's funded on a shoestring of donations, and it's fueled by the conviction that homelessness and destitution are not permanent identities, but rather conditions that can be overcome. Thompson and her volunteer colleagues believe compassion and a hot meal can deliver kindness, dignity and respect to people making that struggle.
Many Crescent City Cafe guests learned about the service while waiting in a mission meal line, but this breakfast is a very different type of experience. Every practical effort is made to create a restaurant-like setting for these monthly meals, which are now held in a hall at Rayne Memorial United Methodist Church in Uptown New Orleans.
Guests at a recent breakfast walk in hesitantly, unsure of what to expect. Some come in pairs, some with small children in tow, though most arrive alone. They're greeted by a smiling host who shows them to a table. Another volunteer offers coffee and juice and soon a waiter arrives to recite the day's selection of dishes. The choice this morning is a breakfast burrito or a big slab of egg casserole, a cookbook recipe from New Orleans celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse. Garnishes of green onions, sides of breakfast potatoes and orders of toast complete the meals.
These last bits might seem like small touches, but such details help divorce the Crescent City Cafe from the atmosphere of the soup kitchen and the food bank, and that gets to the point of this program -- for both its guests and its volunteers. To serve such a meal to strangers who desperately need it is elevating. To be served such a meal is an affirmation that's hard to measure.
When breakfast wraps up, guests say their thank you's, they shake hands with volunteers and with fellow diners and they head outside. The streets are quiet early on a Saturday morning, but the beating summer sun is rising. Another day is beginning in New Orleans, and some of its most vulnerable residents depart to face it with full bellies and a powerful fresh dose of compassion.
The next Crescent City Caf is scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 7, from 8 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. at 3900 Saint Charles Avenue in New Orleans, corner of General Taylor Street. It's free and open to anyone in need.