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A week ago today, I spent an afternoon in the lovely town of Berkeley, working with an inspiring group called Karma Kitchen. It all began a few weeks ago, when a friend posted a picture on Facebook from his day at KK. (Thank you, Sateen.) I went to their website and learned that it is a volunteer-based group that takes over a restaurant for lunch service every Sunday. The volunteers run the whole show –seating, serving, bussing, plating, washing, setup, cleanup… everything except the cooking, which is done by the restaurant’s chef. Even more intriguing was the fact that KK is completely donation-based, where patrons are given a check at the end of the meal with a zero tab. Patrons are told that their meal was paid for by those who came before them and are invited to continue the chain of paying it forward. Their website further explains, “In a gift economy, goods and services are given without any strings attached… a shift from consumption to contribution, transaction to trust, scarcity to abundance, and isolation to community.”
I knew it wasn’t a coincidence that I happened upon his post; I had been feeling a lack of service in my life lately and had been researching various organizations in Los Angeles. Something about KK spoke to me and I decided then and there I wanted to volunteer with them on my next trip to the bay area. It was only a day’s commitment, but it was a step in the right direction; I decided to go to San Francisco for the 4th of July weekend. I was staying with my friend Reena and when I told her about KK, she decided it would be a fun experience to do together and signed up as well.
On a gorgeous Sunday morning, we headed down to Berkeley, my first visit to the town in years. We had no idea what we were in for, but were excited and ready for whatever came our way. There was a brief orientation, where we met the rest of the volunteers, were told a bit more about KK and the day ahead, and were given our job assignments. I had told myself that even if I were assigned to dishwashing, I would do it blissfully. After all, I had been inspired to serve; how I served would be unimportant that day.
As it turned out, three of us were chosen as servers (and bus-girls, it turned out, since we were short of volunteers that day). The rest of our team of nine served as maitre’d, cashier and check runner, dishwasher, drinks and dessert filler, platers, and pretty much everything in between. Most of us had never worked a day in a restaurant. I have hosted countless brunches and dinner parties, but nothing thus far had prepared me for the next few hours. It was constant motion: welcoming diners; explaining the concept of KK to those who had never been; taking orders; wiping down tables; yelling out forgotten drinks or extra naan orders; turning two-tops into four-tops into six-tops (I learned a bit of restaurant lingo); back and forth (and back and forth) through the swinging door hoping not to have one of those movie-scene moments where you run into the person on the other side, a tray of mango lassis crashing to the floor. It felt like a non-stop stream of Top Chef’s quick fire challenges and restaurant wars rolled into one.
Here are a few snapshots of the most memorable moments.
- Finding myself peeling potatoes with Vishnu the Nepalese cook while waiting for the morning orientation; the joy on his face when I tell him I speak Hindi, creating our own special bond throughout the day.
- The elderly lady who I was told was a pain and sat herself in my station, only to turn out to be one of my sweetest customers. She was more demanding than the others, but when she asked for something with an “I know you’re really busy but,” I responded with “never too busy for you” and a smile. If she were my grandmother, I would have wanted someone else to do the same for her.
- The five year old who was overjoyed when the bowl of rice came out with peas arranged in a smiley face. When I told him they made it especially for him, he beamed up at his parents and said, “See, I got my own surprise!”
- Patrons who gladly got up to help when we were backed up and at our busiest.
- My cohorts showing me that we were all a team – a smile, an unexpected hug, an icy drink, a calm reminder to take a deep breath, stepping in to serve someone else’s table when things got backed up, and on and on.
At the end of the day, we sat down for a community meal, most of us too exhausted to think about eating. It was a beautiful way to end the day, to go around and share each person’s experience. I was filled with gratitude to be a part of the KK experience and to have met such a passionate group of people, all who came together to give their time and heart to those who came to the restaurant. Someone asked me if the experience had met my expectations, having driven up from L.A. and I responded:
It was a tough day, not any more than I expected, but it was tough…but in a good way, like going on a hike that you don’t think you can do, but somehow you keep on going, finally reaching to the top and looking down at the amazing view. You forget moments of doubt, the ache in your legs, the tightness in your back; you feel nothing but the rush of adrenaline and the joy in your soul.
--Venu on Jul 11, 2011