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Karma Kitchen: something special in the atmosphere

Karma Kitchen's strength lies in creating an atmosphere of generosity. When guests walk through those doors, they are not only greeted by the smells of wonderful cuisine, but the warmth of smiles and the embrace of kindness. It changes your whole orientation.

Serving this week, I was reminded of how powerful KK is in shifting orientations. In the heart of the 12-1pm rush, into the restaurant comes a homeless man wearing a pink vest, pink beeny, and carrying two over-stuffed plastic bags and a backpack. He had a scraggly white beard and piercing blue eyes. I greeted him with a smile, and he returned one. Then he says, "I was told that I could come here for a free meal, I'd like to have one."

I paused to come up with the appropriate response. KK isn't a soup kitchen, and our intention isn't to give out "free meals." The food served is a gift, and has a value; the challenge we give to guests is to decide what value it has to them.

Sensing that this person had not been explained the KK concept fully, I began to do so. He listened carefully, and afterwards said he understood, though since he was homeless he may not be able to pay for the meal. I told him that was fine, guests have been known to pay back in all kinds of ways. He could choose to give something besides money, something as simple as a note of thanks. Leaving his bulky belongings in a corner of the restaurant, I walked him over to an empty table where he sat and proceeded to have a meal. As he sat, each time I walked by he would look up and give a huge beaming smile. It seemed that he had caught the KK spirit.

Then, as the man finished his meal and prepared to get up from his table, I saw something extraordinary. He had a small coin purse in his hand, and was stuffing the bill holder with coins! I was floored. I approached him and asked him if he was actually paying for his meal, and he said he was. A homeless man! He said that he felt like he had to contribute something. The restaurant was about community, which to him was the most important thing. He also appreciated the opportunity to connect with South Asian culture through food. When I told him it wasn't necessary for him to pay, he responded, "I could only give a little, I wish I could contribute more!"

What a moment, a stunning shift in orientation. A homeless man walks into KK asking, "what can I get?" and walks out asking, "what can I give?"

This is what the atmosphere of KK can do to people. But that atmosphere isn't created without hard work. It is through our volunteers and their spirit of generosity and service. It is through boundless positive energy bubbling out of the back from Bhoutik, the endless smiles of Gauri (even as she made naan with the chefs :)), the calm, steady anchoring of Stephanie plating in the kitchen and Praveen serving in the front, the quarterback-like leadership of Kye, the step-it-up energy of Lucy (who handled the table for 10 at the end of the day without hesitation), the enthusiasm of not-so-new server Michelle, the essential plug-all-holes efforts of Vikram, and the infectious love of Susan. You all *are* that atmosphere; you create that space for transformation. I'm thankful to have witnessed it.

--Maitre-D' :) on Jun 7, 2010

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