Sometimes it’s the simple things that make all the difference – like a plate.
Usually, meals at the Poverello House are served on plastic trays, the kind most of us got in elementary school with segments for milk and pizza, maybe a fruit cup. Handing a tray through a window when you serve 1,500 meals a day is the most efficient way to do it at Poverello House.
But once a month it changes.
The dining hall transforms into Papa Mike’s Cafe on the second Thursday of every month. It’s essentially a restaurant-style dining experience for people who can’t afford a nice meal out or to put food on a plate of their own.
Instead of walking through a line past the window, people dealing with homelessness, addiction or simply having trouble making ends meet are seated by one of the kitchen workers at a table.
A three-course meal is on the menu at the most recent Papa Mike’s Cafe. Rolls and a salad – made with romaine lettuce, heirloom tomatoes, pickled red onion and cucumber, crumbled blue cheese and an Italian vinaigrette – is waiting for diners on the tables. Blueberry bread pudding is waiting to be served for dessert.
Waiters and waitresses (kitchen workers and volunteers) take orders, asking each of nearly 200 people if they want barbecued ribs or the lemon-rosemary roast chicken.
And the entrees are served on ceramic plates.
“This is nice – an actual plate,” says Jan Nette Sonzena, 49. “It’s not a tray. There’s a difference when you go home and have a nice plate.”
Home for Sonzena is the Village of Hope, the community of sheds that is part of Poverello House and provides a safe, sheltered place to sleep.
She needed one after a divorce sent her life skidding off track and then a falling out with roommates left her looking for a place to live.
During dinner, Poverello House founder Mike McGarvin sits at the edge of the dining room in his “Fresno tuxedo” – the denim overalls he always wears – watching the hustle and bustle.
He’s the Mike in Papa Mike’s Cafe.
The cafe is a way to give people back a little bit of dignity that they may have lost, he says.
“All day, all night, they’re surviving every second,” McGarvin says. “To be treated nicely, it’s refreshing to them. It goes a long way.”
Poverello House has been hosting Papa Mike’s Cafe since 2006, but this is the first time there has been a guest chef in the kitchen for it.
Roy Harland created the menu and led the kitchen staff on this night. Now 73 and retired, he once commanded the kitchens of some of the city’s top restaurants including Slates, Harland’s and the Elbow Room.
No one at Sonzena’s table knew who he was, though he probably is the closest thing Fresno has to a celebrity chef.
Organizers of Papa Mike’s Cafe are looking for more chefs to volunteer. Rosalinda Garcia and others from the family behind Guadalajara restaurants will do September’s dinner, complete with folklorico dancers in the dining room.
The Papa Mike’s Cafes after that still need volunteer chefs.
Organizers say they could also use donations of food and cash. For typical meals at Poverello House, 99% of the food served is donated. But since this is a special occasion, they often will buy some of it.
They figure they can fund an entire night of Papa Mike’s Cafe meals with $400, says Poverello House chef and director Tito Olazabal.
They serve about 400 meals total – besides the nearly 200 in the dining room, another 200 are sent out to various agencies the Poverello House provides food for, including women’s shelter Marjaree Mason Center.
The Poverello House also is looking for donations of meat they don’t often get, including tripe and goat meat. Since a large percentage of clients are Hispanic, they would love to be able to make menudo or other Mexican dishes, Olazabal says.
They’re also looking for musicians – cellists or violinists maybe – to play while people eat.
But getting the chef is the hardest part. A night in the Poverello House kitchen is a lot different than a night at a restaurant.
For starters, planning the meal is 10 times more difficult because they’re dealing with mostly donated food. Unlike restaurants, which plan their menus well in advance and buy their food from suppliers, the menu for Papa Mike’s Cafe is based mostly on what is donated, and was changing repeatedly in the days leading up to the meal.
The Friday before, Harland and Olazabal were looking through the warehouse when two pallets of donated mushrooms caught Harland’s eye.
“Beautiful mushrooms,” Olazabal says. “They are like portabellos but they’re smaller, shiny, I mean – great. So he sees that and he says, ‘Whoa.’”
Plans to drizzle them in balsamic vinegar and bake them were hatched and the mushrooms were on the menu. Or, were on the menu, until volunteers accidentally donated the mushrooms to another agency. (The Poverello House frequently acts as a clearinghouse for donated food to other agencies).
“In a restaurant, you can fine-tune every day,” Harland says. “This is kinda by the seat of your pants.”
And then there is the kitchen.
The equipment isn’t what most chefs are used to. Harland forgot to bring his own knife set the day of dinner. He cut up 40 chickens with a knife not nearly as sharp as he is used to.
“That’s a lot of chickens with a dull knife,” he says.
And the towels used in the kitchens have enough rips and holes in them to make you feel the heat when you grab a hot pan with them, he says.
The 13 kitchen workers aren’t trained cooks. The men are part of the live-in drug and alcohol rehab program and need to be taught the basics of cooking, usually by Olazabal.
He preps them for working with a new chef.
“Somebody asked, ‘Is it going to be like “Hell’s Kitchen”?’” referring to the TV show where Gordon Ramsay spends much of his time screaming and berating chef-contestants.
No, it’s not like that, Olazabal assures them. No yelling.
“I always just throw my opinions out,” Harland says. “Some of it sticks.
The men did good, Olazabal says.
“He showed us a lot,” kitchen worker Samuel Garcia says. “He showed us that pepper is a friend.”
And the food was tasty enough that every last morsel was cleaned from every plate at Sonzena’s table.
She, by the way, is well on her way to getting her high school diploma with the help of the Poverello House. She also is working toward getting her registered dental assistant license back.
“I’ve gained a lot. I’m happy,” she says.
The meal is icing on the cake.
“I think it’s fun,” she says. “It helps people on the streets. It helps us to regain our social mannerisms, what it feels like to be amongst people. Here they serve us.”