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Despite change at the top, Camden’s Cathedral Kitchen is keeping success on the menu

Founded in 1976, Cathedral Kitchen has evolved from serving dinner to needy people to a more comprehensive human services program that includes culinary training and dental care.

Cathedral Kitchen incoming executive director Carrie Kitchen-Santiago (left) and outgoing executive director Karen Talarico share a hug in the East Camden dining room of the respected nonprofit.  ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Cathedral Kitchen incoming executive director Carrie Kitchen-Santiago (left) and outgoing executive director Karen Talarico share a hug in the East Camden dining room of the respected nonprofit. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff PhotographerRead moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

On her first day as Cathedral Kitchen's first-ever executive director, in 2003, Karen Talarico discovered that her makeshift office had neither a phone nor a computer. There wasn't an electrical outlet, either.

Cathedral Kitchen nevertheless managed to serve dinner to several hundred needy people that day, as it had long done five days a week in the gymnasium of the former Camden Catholic High School in downtown Camden, where the beloved duo of Clyde "Pop" Jones (may he rest in peace) and his wife, Theresa, made it all happen with volunteers and a shoestring budget.

Fifteen years later, Talarico is poised to retire at the end of December from a bigger, more sustainable, and far more ambitious organization, where a state-of-the-art East Camden headquarters serves 100,000 dinners annually and offers culinary training, a commercial kitchen, and a popular lunch spot called the CK Cafe.

There's also a seasonal pop-up restaurant, the Lunch Box, at Roosevelt Park in downtown Camden, and a free dental clinic in East Camden that treats 1,000 adults annually.

"While it's wonderful to feed people, they need to be healthy. They need to have teeth," Talarico said one afternoon last week, standing in the dining room alongside her successor, Carrie Kitchen-Santiago.

Cathedral Kitchen was founded in 1976. I wrote about it for the first time in the 1980s, coming away impressed by the strength, grit and goodness of those who served — and those who were being served as well.

"Carrie will be a great fit … based on her skills, her commitment to working to help those in poverty, and her compassionate personality," board president Glenn Giveans said in a statement, adding that the organization "is thrilled to have her as our new executive director."

A veteran of leadership positions at Philadelphia nonprofits, Kitchen-Santiago was selected from among 100 applicants during a six-month search. She began work five weeks ago, with Talarico staying on to help until the end of the year to help ensure a smooth transition.

"You don't come up with a strategic plan after five weeks," the new executive director said. "We already touch a lot of people, and generally speaking, I'd like to deepen the impact we have on some of the folks we serve, especially the meal guests. To help them stabilize their lives so they don't have to come for a meal."

Taking on the top job, a newcomer often finds herself "almost starting from nothing, or in a turnaround situation," said Kitchen-Santiago, 44, a mother of two who lives in Haddon Township. "Cathedral Kitchen is not that. This is a stable, well-funded and very diversified organization in a good position."

Said Talarico, a mother of two and grandmother of two who lives in Vineland: "Carrie doesn't have to worry about putting out a lot of fires."

There's plenty enough to do already in an organization with 47 employees and a $3.2 million annual budget.

From Monday through Saturday, more than 300 men, women and children line up outside the kitchen's dining room on the slowly reviving 1500 block of Federal Street.

They come for a hot, healthy, "home-cooked"-style meal prepared under the direction of  longtime chef Jonathan Jernigan and served with the help of a dozen or more volunteers among the hundreds who have committed to help the organization.

Seven days a week, a separate commercial kitchen behind the cafe produces 1,600 meals for schools, shelters, halfway houses and other facilities in the city. And twice annually, training classes in the culinary and baking arts — students include people re-entering the community after incarceration — are offered for 17 weeks.

Since that program began in 2010, 330 have graduated, and 22 of them have been hired by the kitchen.

Among them is Mark Woodall, 54, who lives in the city's Centerville section and has been cooking at Cathedral Kitchen for seven years. Before that, he was in a Camden halfway house completing a 36-month state prison sentence for selling drugs, and was a volunteer at the kitchen.

There, he witnessed an act of generosity by Jernigan that touched him. The chef gave his coat to a dinner guest who was going to spend the winter night outdoors, Woodall said, "and that made me want to be a part of Cathedral Kitchen."

"This place literally saved my life," he said.

Success stories notwithstanding,  Cathedral Kitchen and programs like it are seen by some as enabling, rather than helping, people in need. Kitchen-Santiago noted that polls suggest many Americans blame low-income people for being low-income.

"If you are willing to wait outside in the freezing cold before we open, you must be hungry. You must really need that meal," Talarico said. "Who am I to deny you a meal? We're not here to judge. We're just here to meet people where they're at."

Leaving Cathedral Kitchen is "bittersweet," she said. "I work with wonderful people. You can see the heart that's in this place.

"But it's time. It's time for a younger person to take over. And I think Carrie is going to do a great job."