CUISINE OF CARING
At Camden's most unusual new restaurant, there's more than hearty fare on the menu. Five raised beds of veggies are flourishing on the roof; a cozy "garden terrace" offers an outdoor space for catered events; and some employees are ex-cons who have turned their lives around.
At Camden's most unusual new restaurant, there's more than hearty fare on the menu.
Five raised beds of veggies are flourishing on the roof; a cozy "garden terrace" offers an outdoor space for catered events; and some employees are ex-cons who have turned their lives around.
Welcome to the CK Cafe, where sales of sandwiches, salads, and platters named for Pyne Poynt, Parkside, Fairview, and other sections of the city help feed the needy folks who live there.
"We're trying to celebrate where we're at," says Karen Talarico, executive director of Cathedral Kitchen, the cafe's nonprofit parent.
"Having worked in Camden for 12 years, I felt there was a market for something a little bit upscale, modern, and friendly," Talarico adds. "A nice little place to sit and have lunch close to downtown."
The gleaming cafe opened in May in a former machine shop at 1506 Federal St. It operates from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; takeout is available, as are event rentals.
"We didn't want it to be a deli," says Talarico as clusters of lunch customers arrive, many of them regulars from other human services agencies in the city. "We want it to be more like a bistro."
The neighborhood names for dishes and other creative elements of the CK Cafe menu were products of brainstorming and tasting sessions among seven Cathedral Kitchen chefs and administrators.
Given Camden's reputation - and the cafe's somewhat off-the-radar location, albeit one with plenty of parking - group members knew that getting people in the door would be the biggest challenge.
"We have to [offer] something customers have to come to the cafe to get," says Jonathan Jernigan, executive chef and culinary instructor for Cathedral Kitchen. "Big, bold flavors. Things that make your mouth go crazy."
"Where else can you get a grilled shrimp sandwich?" asks Bea Gosik, chief operating officer of Cathedral Kitchen and a 30-year veteran of the food business. "You come to Camden to get it," Gosik adds. "Just saying!"
(On Tuesday, I opted for the nifty Whitman Park salad, followed by a fabulous chocolate peanut bar - for about $10.)
Founded nearly 40 years ago in the basement of the former Camden Catholic High School gymnasium near Broadway and Federal, Cathedral Kitchen provides free hot meals six days a week for 350 homeless or otherwise needy adults and children - referred to as "guests" - at its new headquarters, which opened in 2008.
Both the cafe and headquarters were designed by the Philadelphia firm DAS Architects. The exuberant buildings add a stylish jolt of vitality to a beleaguered, if busy, stretch of Federal between the Admiral Wilson Boulevard and State Street.
"It helps neighborhood development," Talarico says.
The move from downtown also has enabled Cathedral Kitchen to offer a culinary arts training program that, since 2009, has graduated more than 200 residents of Camden and other communities.
Many graduates have jobs in local restaurants or institutional food service operations. Others work in an on-site commercial kitchen that enables Cathedral Kitchen to produce and deliver 1,500 meals a week to Volunteers of America facilities and programs.
Revenue from the commercial kitchen and the cafe - which has its own kitchen and food suppliers - helps augment the government grants, foundation support, and private donations that provide much of Cathedral Kitchen's $2.3 million annual budget.
And the 17-week culinary arts program reflects a mission that goes beyond feeding the needy.
"Some of our employees came from the same halfway house they're now delivering food to," notes Colleen Rini, Cathedral Kitchen's development director.
"Lots of the guys here came from Hope Hall," says commercial kitchen head chef LeBaron Harvey, 34.
He served part of his three-year sentence on drug-related charges at the halfway house in the city's Morgan Village section, and was a member of the second Culinary Arts graduating class in 2009.
"It makes me feel good to give people hope that if I can make it, they can make it," says Harvey, a married father of four who grew up in Camden and lives in Pine Hill.
Hope also is an essential ingredient for any start-up enterprise - particularly when the enterprise opens its doors in a perpetually struggling place like Camden. "The blessing is, we have so many partners in the community who support" the cafe, Gosik says. "Not many retail outlets have that.
"And when our customers support us, they support our dinner guests, so it's a feel-good," she adds. "We're more than just lunch."