Just over a year ago, Cúrate co-owner Liz Button introduced an initiative to bring a fine-dining experience to the city’s homeless and food insecure. Once each month since last June, Button has brought some of Asheville’s most prominent chefs into the basement kitchen of the Haywood Street Congregation’s Welcome Table program to cook and share their cuisine with the homeless ministry’s guests.
During the three lunch seatings that happen each Wednesday, the Welcome Table offers a made-from-scratch meal to between 400 and 600 hungry people. Diners are seated together at tables graced with white tablecloths and silverware, and meals are served to them on china by volunteer wait staff.
Most Wednesdays, the lunches are prepared by the program’s chef, Dave Holland. But the last week of each month is reserved for the restaurants. Holland consults with the chefs in advance regarding menus and planning.
During a recent Welcome Table lunch, the menu featured smoked chicken gumbo, green salad with crispy root vegetables, bread and banoffee pie (a decadent mix of banana cream and toffee) thanks to The Junction and King James Public House.
“Gumbo is comfort food,” says Holland, seated at one of the tables, savoring a bite. “I knew this would be a great day for everyone.”
The Junction chef Chad Kelly says the four-week process of preparing for the meal was “pretty intense” and included a lot of extra work. But he says it was worth the effort, and he wants to do it again, in part because of what The Junction staff experienced when bar manager Jason Crosby died from pancreatic cancer last fall.
“All these donations came in; all these people gave money [to support Crosby’s] family,” he says. “The community really came out to support Jason, and I think this is in that same spirit of community and giving back.”
Although King James Public House chef Steven Goff says he was “a little worried” about making lunch for more than 400 people, he says he has been excited about the project. Lack of housing is an issue that hits home for the A-B Tech culinary program graduate.
A decade ago, Goff made a stopover in Asheville while hopping trains on his way to California and found himself grounded and homeless after being arrested at a gay rights protest. “I was living in the woods across the street from King James Public House,” he says. “I used to eat at ABCCM every day. That’s why [this project] is so important to me.”
Goff says he approached Button about participating in the program as soon as he heard about it. “I look around for opportunities like this, not just because I used to be homeless, but because a restaurant to me is a communal thing. I really feel like we should play a bigger role in the community; we should be taking part in things like this.”
Button says she got the idea for the project from the Haywood Street Congregation’s pastor, Brian Combs, who had read about a similar program in Los Angeles. After initially reaching out to a few restaurateurs to get the ball rolling, she says she has since found businesses eager to participate, with at least 18 now scheduled through August 2015.
“The reaction has been really positive,” says Button. “I typically get about three restaurants a month that reach out and say they want to be a part of it.”
Haywood Street Congregation Executive Director Laura Kirby says the program is popular among Welcome Table guests and beneficial for the organization as a whole. “It costs about $1,000 per week to put this on, and the restaurants collect money from their patrons to help them cover expenses. Anything they receive above the cost of the food gets passed on to us. It’s a win-win for everybody,” she says.
Button says that for the restaurants, it’s not just about community service. “We already give back to the community in a lot of ways,” she says, “but this is the one time we actually get to be a part of the giving back. … It’s about sitting around a table and … sharing a meal together, maybe with some people who may not often experience that.”
Asheville Independent Restaurants Executive Director Jane Anderson, who happened to be among the guests at the Welcome Table that day, says the program helps develop positive relationships. “Bringing people who are not housed together with local business owners over a meal like this is beneficial for everyone,” she says. “It helps everyone develop new respect for each other. One of the biggest things this program is doing is helping to erase that division of us and them.”
Welcome Table meals are free and open to all, both housed and unhoused. Meals are offered at 10:30 a.m., 11:15 a.m. and noon every Wednesday at the Haywood Street Congregation, 297 Haywood St. Upcoming restaurant sponsors include Bouchon on Sept. 17, Chai Pani on Oct. 8 and Cucina 24/Bull & Beggar on Nov. 19. Details: haywoodstreet.org
Photos by Alicia Funderburk