IT'S guest-chef night at the Common Meals Restaurant in downtown Seattle.
Customers filter into the dining room, many of them regulars who come each week to sample cuisine from different Seattle restaurants. Tonight's menu: a four-course vegetarian repast from the highly regarded Cafe Flora.
The event represents much more than a treat for eaters. Behind the scenes, two successful chefs share tricks of their trade with homeless men and women - mostly men - who are the restaurant's full-time cooking and waiting staff. These apprentices gain valuable job skills and credentials through ``Common Meals,'' a 12-week training course designed to help them get back on their feet economically.
Elisha Boyd is one of these success-stories-in-progress.
A few months ago, he was bedding down at a Seattle shelter after fighting off drug addiction. ``Once I got done doing treatment I didn't have nowhere to go,'' the softspoken Mr. Boyd says. ``Every day I would go up and read the bulletin board'' at the shelter. High placement rate
Common Meals caught his eye and had no waiting list at the time. (The program can take up to 22 people, with participants entering and leaving on a rolling basis.)
He signed up, stuck with it through early days spent washing dishes, and on this autumn day he has been learning from guest-chef Carolin Messier how to make an elaborate chocolate-hazelnut torte, or ``Autumn Strata,'' as she refers to it on her menu. The dessert includes layers of chocolate sponge cake, hazelnut butter cream, and poached pears.
If the Common Meals track record is any guide, Boyd will soon not only land a cooking job but find independent housing as well. The program has had an 86-percent placement rate in its first two years. Jobs are likely to be entry-level such as line-cook, with few chances to assemble an Autumn Strata. But it also promises to be more than a fast-food position.
Common Meals tries to funnel participants into large restaurants or institutional food-service organizations that offer good benefits and opportunity for advancement. Of those who find work and independent housing, four-fifths still have their jobs and apartments after a 13-week tracking period, says Tony Thibou of the Seattle YWCA, who acts as case manager for the participants.
Instead of looking for work upon completion of the program, Boyd has stayed with Common Meals for another month as one of two ``student supervisors.'' Now, in December, he is just completing that training, which is reserved for students with special leadership potential. Trainees must measure up
Participants must be homeless and unemployed to enter the program. In the first two weeks they ``run the gantlet'' to see if they can stay in the group, Mr. Thibou says.
Trainees must show on-time attendance, good performance, and sincerity, restaurant manager James Dunmore says. ``We try to maintain a certain balance where it's not one strike and you're out.''
The enterprise is funded by the United States Labor Department under the McKinney Act, contributions, and modest restaurant revenue. ``We do catering out of this kitchen also,'' says Raul Segura, a food-service executive with Marriott Corporation who organizes the guest-chef nights each week. Catering, with at least 10 events per week, ``is doing a lot better than the restaurant does,'' he adds.
The nonprofit Common Meals training program is an outgrowth of a for-profit firm that supplies meals to the elderly and homeless.
``Tacoma [Wash.] is begging us to come up there and do a program like this,'' Mr. Dunmore says. ``We want to fine-tune this [before trying to expand],'' he says. One goal is to find more affordable housing. Some graduates of Common Meals are working but still living in shelters, he notes. Another aim is to make the restaurant a self-supporting operation.
Guest-chef nights, Thibou says, are the group's best promotion vehicles so far. The menu is faxed to local newspapers, and customers often fill the dining room for the $8.50 meals.
On this night, perhaps because of the vegetarian menu and sunny weather, people are slow to show up. Even some of early diners are skeptical. ``Grilled yellow squash? I don't think so,'' jokes Pam Langus, looking at the menu.
In the kitchen, guest-chef Chris Quigley explains to Delbert Martin how he wants the main course, risotto, to be arranged on the plate. A confidence booster
``Instead of spreading it around all over the place, you mound it up a little bit,'' Mr. Quigley says, using his fingers to shape a serving of the Italian rice dish.
``This is a good program,'' says Mr. Martin, who heard about Common Meals through a downtown shelter. Participants in the program make progress beyond job skills, he says. ``Coming to work every day, ... doing something challenging, it builds their self-esteem.''
Nearby, another trainee, Rufus Rials, prepares salads under similar aesthetic instructions from Quigley, placing carefully cut slices of zucchini and yellow squash alongside the greens.
``People eat with their eyes,'' says chef Andy Willson, chef supervisor for Common Meals, underscoring the importance of Quigley's lesson.
Martin will graduate from Common Meals tomorrow, while Mr. Rials finished last week and is now seeking work.
Job-skill training efforts such as Common Meals are ``overwhelmingly important'' in the national fight against homelessness, says Martha Burt, director of social-services research at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. She says that while a portion of the homeless population has serious mental-illness, drug, or alcohol problems that would preclude holding a job, most homeless people are ``cycling through'' during hard times.
Another key element in any solution must be job creation, Ms. Burt adds. ``If the jobs aren't there you can't get 'em,'' no matter how much training is given.
One advantage Common Meals has on this front, Thibou says, is that the restaurant and food-service industry has high turnover so jobs are often opening up even in a slow-growth economy.