Chef cooks up a grand social experiment

"I live in the street" says a diner named Mohammed, who is at a crowded table of four at Carmei Ha'ir (Vineyards of the City), a Jerusalem restaurant. "Yesterday I looked in the garbage for food. I heard they give food for free here."

That kind of comment could be heard at many soup kitchens in Israel, which has moved away from its welfare-state roots.

But this isn't a soup kitchen; it's a restaurant overseen by award-winning chef Moshe Basson, who once counted Israeli cabinet ministers and Jerusalem's mayor among his regular clientele. He and his partner, Rabbi Yehuda Azrad, wanted to create an eatery that caters not only to different tastes, but different classes.

For the long-term poor, Carmei Ha'ir was to be a notch above the usual charity meal, with a choice of entrees, table service, and a restaurantlike ambience. In Mr. Azrad's view, it was vital that the eatery not be run-down and depressing. "Our aim is to provide food with dignity," he says.

Mr. Basson backed that approach, but also wanted to draw in some of his old customers from his previous restaurant, Eucalyptus. His specialty is Bible-based cuisine and Middle East specialties.

Mostly, however, Basson wanted to reach the newly poor, those Israelis who came from the middle class but had lost their businesses or jobs because of the economic downturn.

The financial difficulties he had faced after years of prosperity at Eucalyptus made him feel a special kinship with such people. Eucalyptus was located on Jaffa Road, a street struck repeatedly by suicide bombers, and Basson's clientele had dropped precipitously as Israelis and tourists stayed away from downtown Jerusalem. He had to dismiss most of his staff, and eventually shut down after having the electricity cut off because he could not pay the bill. Dozens of other Jerusalem businesses have ended the same way.

"I wanted to reach people experiencing poverty for the first time, who don't wear a sign [saying] 'I am poor,' and who look the same as you and me," says Basson. "Sometimes they are the most poor because they aren't accepting assistance from anyone. They haven't raised the white flag. If the place has the stigma of a soup kitchen, these people will never go in. In our society, people don't die from hunger, they die from shame."

Only those with money pay for their meals

From those beliefs came Carmei Ha'ir's payment system: After the meal, customers place whatever amount they decide, if any, in a box on the way out. (The restaurant is supported by contributions from individuals in Israel and abroad.)

In the weeks after the March opening, about 20 percent of the customers paid either the equivalent of what they would in a good restaurant or more, Basson says.

In culinary terms, he was able to satisfy both those who paid and those who could not. "I took simple home cooking and gave it a gourmet touch," he says. For example, to enhance lentil soup, which he stresses, is a biblical dish (Genesis 25:34), he added lemon, then fried together garlic, sharp pepper, cilantro, coriander seeds, celery, and cumin, and added them.

"Everyone got the same soup, the poor and those who paid," Basson says. "There was never anything that was reserved just for the better off."

But over the summer, the balance between the poor and those who paid for their meals broke down, as demand for free meals proved much greater than Basson and Azrad had envisioned. By September, Carmei Ha'ir was serving 500 free meals a day compared with 150 when it opened. By last month, there were no paying customers when this reporter visited.

"Regular customers and new customers would come in, give me money, and walk out without eating," Basson says. "There was a critical mass of poor, and we weren't smart enough to save places for the others. It became only the poor."

Carmei Ha'ir is situated in the heart of a restaurant district, adjoining Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market. From the outside, it could easily be mistaken for the steak restaurantsthat surround it. But a long line of poor people forms outside daily for its opening at noon. The volunteer waitresses are in constant motion, bringing out the food and taking away plates.They smile a lot and greet the diners warmly.

"These are people who are down on their luck," says waitress Betty Lukinsky, an immigrant from the United States. "They are unemployed. We get a lot of Russian immigrants, people who just have not gotten jobs. They love that I remember what they order. I feel it's my privilege to work here," she adds. "We are all human beings, and some are having more trouble than others."

Can the situation be changed?

Basson now directshis energy less toward cooking - which has mostly been taken over by others, so the meals no longer include his old specialties from Eucalyptus - and more toward planning how to restore the restaurant aspect of Carmei Ha'ir.

"We will never tell someone not to enter," says Azrad. "The problem was that the demand by the poor was so overwhelming. It is hard for some people to sit next to poor people; it harms their honor. Also, many people who could pay did not want to take places away from the poor."

Despite the problems, Basson isn't giving up. "I want to bring back the customer who can pay," he says. "In addition to paying, this customer is also giving the poor person dignity, so that the poor person feels he is in a restaurant with rich people."

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