Head of the table

FareStart's new executive director settles in.

"IT CAN BE PRETTY HARD to find a table here on Thursday night; we're usually booked weeks in advance," my dinner date tells me. I don't doubt her. The megawatt buzz circuiting this jam-packed room is a product of that peculiar endorphin created by highly successful restaurants: an electric charge sparked by knives, forks, and spoons bumping up against good conversation, raised wineglasses chiming after the pop of a cabernet's cork, the rhythmic percussion of chef's knives on wood, the crisp snap of white-coated wrists saut驮g, scurrying waitstaff hoisting trays, and deep sighs of satisfied digestion. Besides, I'm eating with Megan Karch, and she should know. This is FareStart, and she's its new executive director.

Just a few months ago, Cleveland-born Karch was on the other side of the country, working as the director of vocational services for a private nonprofit agency that provided rehabilitation, employment, and housing services to over 1,000 people a year. But she had, well, call it an itch. "I lived in Baltimore for 11 years and loved my job, but I was always attracted to the Pacific Northwest. Seattle's the perfect city for me because I love to sail and I love mountains. It was one of those feelings that would come every couple of years—it would kinda hit, I would start thinking about it, but then a great project would come along, or a promotion. There was always something that kept me there, until last August."

She gave herself a year to find a job. It only took four months. "It was perfect timing. Just as I was getting serious about looking at opportunities within the Pacific Northwest, FareStart had begun its national executive search process. In a sense, we both searched each other out." She had a gut feeling that the FareStart job was a perfect match for her, she says, even before she interviewed for it. After all, there's no other restaurant like it in the United States.

Though its funky old-school brass-and-marble digs in Belltown's Josephinum Building (1902 Second, once one of Seattle's swankiest hotels) lends it instant cachet, what makes FareStart unique is not style, but character: The people dicing, grilling, baking, roasting, and serving your seared Alaskan salmon with English pea risotto, oven-dried tomato, roasted cipollini onions, and chive oil are homeless and disadvantaged men and women training for new jobs—and new lives—in the food service industry. (Give a man a fish, and he'll eat for a day; teach a man to cook fish, and he'll make a fabulous entr饮)

Founded in 1987 by Chef David Lee—who, like Alice Waters, believed in the spiritual as well as nutritional sustenance of food—Common Meals, as it was then called, dished up fresh, healthy, gourmet eats to homeless people more accustomed to tasteless, institutional food of the Dickensian-orphanage variety. Lee took issue with the fact that some people believed the homeless truly deserved to eat canned lima beans and, worse, that they couldn't tell the difference between gruel and gravlax, anyway. Emphasizing his clients' dignity, Lee made Common Meals into a respected national model. In 1992, it became a nonprofit organization and began its culinary education for the homeless: a 16-week program combining hands-on training (both front-of-the-house and in the kitchen), counseling, and life skills classes, such as how to apply and interview for a job.

TODAY THE PROGRAM boasts 30 to 40 students at a time, preparing between 1,500 and 2,000 meals a day; the vittles are served at three locations (the FareStart Caf頡t Antioch University is located on Sixth Avenue, and a new caf鬠the Broderick, has opened in Pioneer Square on Second) and delivered fresh each day to homeless shelters, daycare centers, senior centers, and Head Start programs. These outlets enable FareStart to generate over 50 percent of its revenue, an exceptional rate for a social service agency. Karch says that this entrepreneurial aspect is part of what attracted her to the job. "The training program is all done within the structure of an actual restaurant/food business. It's so exciting running a business at the same time you're training individuals to go their own way, getting them into competitive jobs with good wages, getting them into housing. In my four weeks here, I've seen four graduations, and I get teary every time."

Graduation is held every Thursday as part of FareStart's wildly popular Guest Chef Nights. The difficult—for most people, incomprehensible—journey these students have taken to reach this pinnacle is attested to by the organization's wish list, which includes everything from alarm clocks, socks, personal care products, and interview clothes to dental work, daily planners, and 12-step program books. Yet the students I met seemed more than equal to the task: Though the kitchen was getting slammed, students held their own and never got "in the weeds." As Margaret Roman, who was working the salad station, noted, "The pressure's good, if you use it constructively." Armed with the confidence borne of being treated, perhaps for the first time in their lives, as valuable, responsible, respected members of a community, and having worked with some of the best of the biz (Adriatica's Jay Knickerbocker and Chez Shea's Amy McCray, among many others), students proudly stepped to the front of the restaurant to receive their graduation present: a set of professional chef's knives.

This gift is an apt symbol of the program's success: Nearly 90 percent of its graduates receive jobs working for restaurants, hotels, cruise lines, food manufacturing companies, caterers, and the like. Quick to acknowledge the quiet contributions of hundreds of volunteers, donors, and most especially, the city's food industry, Karch declares, "I'm amazed at Seattle's commitment to social issues." Not one to rest on her laurels (or to rest at all; if she'd had more time, she said only half-jokingly, she would have made the trip from Baltimore to Seattle on her sailboat), her future plans include doubling the number of students by the end of 2003, increasing long-term employment retention, and finding more kitchen and office space, her most pressing problem. She may also need to find some travel time: FareStart has received numerous requests from all over the US and Europe for information on how to replicate the program.

"FareStart has immediate appeal because food is one of our deepest links to each other," explains Board President Dwight Gee, who lived on a farm in Nebraska until his 30s, when he moved to Seattle. Karch agrees, "I grew up in a large, close extended family with food at the center. I have very clear, cherished memories of helping my grandmother bake her famous bread and stir her secret fudge sauce." Both point to the intimacy that a shared meal engenders as a tremendous opportunity for education and social change, and not just on the part of the students. "It's great to see when it clicks," exclaims Karch, "and I see it all the time on tours; I always have people ask me, 'Which ones are the students?' and I just casually say, 'Oh, they're all working right here.' I love it, 'cause when it clicks for people, they realize the homeless, they look like you and me."

For more information on FareStart, call 443-1233.

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