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Interview with Richard!

An Interview with Richard Whittaker conducted by Vlad Moskovski

The world is full of restaurants where people come to sit, to enjoy each other’s company, and of course to eat. Karma Kitchen is a little different. As one of the more local projects of Service Space, Karma Kitchen is a restaurant that offers individuals the possibility to be a server one day, and a guest the next. In this radical place, there is more laughing, more cheer, and more spontaneity than in most restaurants. Here one can come alone and leave feeling a part of a big family and an even bigger ideal – to live a life based on the generosity and service to others.

Vlad: What is the basic premise behind Karma Kitchen and how is it different from a regular restaurant?

Karma Kitchen is an experiment in generosity. On the outside it looks like a regular restaurant, but the atmosphere is different; it’s friendlier, there is more human connection in the air and it leads to an elevated and festive atmosphere. It’s really quite wonderful and no two Sundays are the same. Each week the staff people are all volunteers except the cooks who work for the restaurant and get compensated.

Part of the idea is that this is a special experience for the volunteers. As a volunteer, you are serving the food, but you really want to have the feeling that you are connecting with people. In this attentive openness towards a customer, you might learn that someone has just come to town, or they are on their way somewhere. Maybe someone wants to sing a song, or an anniversary has just happened. There’s any number of things that can be revealed, and if something has been discovered about one of the guests that might be shared with the whole restaurant, the waiter might check with the guest and alert the maitre d’. So there’s this additional dimension where all those who are volunteering are alert to hidden possibilities.

Of course, for the volunteer, there’s also the experience of just trying to meet the basic demands of being a good waiter or dishwasher. It just so happens that at the restaurant [Taste of Himalayas], which is where Karma Kitchen is now, there’s a fellow named Juan who is the most extraordinary dishwasher. One time, as a volunteer, I was assigned that task. I was muddling along as best I could wrestling the dirty dishes, spraying them, and loading them into this commercial machine. There were two of us and sometimes we would fall behind. Then Juan would sweep in. We’d have to get out of his way because Juan is known as “The Hurricane.” Seemingly throwing dishes in every direction and making a big racket, but never breaking anything, he’d just completely take care of the whole mess. In the time that it would take me, or any ordinary person, to do 3 or 4 dishes, he’s done 50. It was really amazing.

Watching Juan showed me how much we miss in this culture by overlooking the maestros that exist in every field of endeavor. We celebrate the maestro who is the conductor of the orchestra, but no one like Juan gets celebrated. I watched Juan wash dishes. I actually watched very carefully, and I saw that he had mastered something to such a degree that it deserved my real feeling of respect and honor. So Karma Kitchen is a place in which one has all kinds of fresh impressions, like my impression of Juan. I think it’s because the basic premise is novel and unexpected. It’s really an exploration of what happens when you actually try to act from generosity and service.

Vlad: Why do you think it’s so popular? There is always a line out the door.

Well, you go there and it’s really fun. It’s really rewarding. I’ve met people and had some astonishing experiences as a guest. For instance, I met this woman,Susan Schaller, and heard her story—which is truly amazing. I could not believe I was sitting across from a person with a story that is the equivalent of the Helen Keller story. That’s my most dramatic experience in meeting someone new there. But people love it because it’s really enlivening.

Vlad: So everything is run by volunteers, what do you think motivates people to volunteer their time on a Sunday afternoon to work in a restaurant serving food and washing dishes?

If your wife has been trying to get you to wash dishes for years, and you’ve been resisting that and now you’re volunteering to wash dishes, that’s strange, isn’t it? [laughs] It seems that people are drawn to the possibility of giving something instead of just concentrating to getting something. And those who already have experienced that shift from “myself and what I want” to a focus on giving and sharing with others know the special feeling that can happen. The thing about Karma Kitchen is that it’s like a little laboratory where people are experimenting and trying to put something new into action. I think that’s what draws people. There may be a few people who just go there to get a meal because they don’t have any money and that’s ok, too, because often they end up coming back to volunteer and serve as well.

Vlad: Is the idea of a pay it forward restaurant spreading? I hear about other locations?

Karma Kitchen has been giving rise to some copies of itself. I think there is one in DC, in Chicago, and another one or two in the process of being born. Service Space projects have had a tendency to spread. Karma Kitchen is one of them, and there are several others. I think there’s a widespread interest in service and a feeling among a lot of young people that there has to be a different model from the selfish, capitalistic attitude of “I’m going to get mine and the hell with you.” Many people feel very deeply that something has to change, and that this change has to be in the direction of some kind of service to a greater good.

Service Space projects are like pure versions of this. They’re pretty radical about that, about carrying out their experiments without any focus on the bottom line—without counting the pennies. The interest is in a kind of selfless service. In something that is truly generous.

Vlad: So, they don’t worry about the bottom line?

The truth is that there has to be a certain amount of income or such projects would not keep working. It’s not as though money is ignored. But it’s not worried about—and Karma Kitchen has been more than supporting itself. It almost seems as if there’s a law, that if something is given with certain kind of purity—if something is truly generous—it always causes a reaction of gratitude. And when you feel grateful, the impulse is to give back. So the bottom line takes care of itself.

With Karma Kitchen, there’s not going to be a big worry. If in fact, people were not paying it forward, they would just close it. I don’t think there’s a big commitment to, “We’ve got to keep this going.” Instead, the attitude is “Let’s try this and see if it works. Let’s see what happens.” In Service Space’ philosophy, there is a willingness to fail.

Vlad: I ask the question about the bottom line, because I see this transition happening from a more capitalist model, at least around here in the Bay Area, to being more gift economy, and of course it brings up concerns in those that don’t have complete faith in generosity or in this law that you speak of.   

I think you have to verify it. If someone gives something to me, and if it’s a real act of generosity, I know how I feel. I know my impulse and response is that of gratitude and the wish to give back and reciprocate. Karma Kitchen is verifiably functioning. The money comes in—although it may fail in the future. The core people in Service Space, while they are very upbeat and full of hopefulness, have not abandoned their critical judgment. They are all very bright people, who look very carefully at things. They are going to be realistic, but they’re also capable of making these unusual leaps and trying things out. It’s how things can actually be tested rather than just thought about.

Vlad: For me, it really comes down to having faith in something that is very pure, Service Space is very pure around their intentions.

It would seem to me that purity is an ideal. In moments one might experience a pure impulse, and the next moment one may say, “Oh, I see how I could benefit from that, and I want to benefit from that.” There are moments when something actually pure might act through one, but to think that one can be pure—I would be extremely suspicious of that. For a lot of Service Space people, Gandhi is a great exemplar. There is a saying of Gandhi’s that, “if you wait until you are pure before you begin to serve, you will never begin to serve.” You have to start wherever you are and then maybe by following the path of service, you will move in the direction of more purity.


Originally published here.  Vlad Moskovski is the author of Involution and a yoga teacher;  Richard Whittaker is editor of works & conversations art magazine.

--Vlad Moskovski on Jul 29, 2011

A Joyful Afternoon

This Sunday, Karma Kitchen invited guests to participate in our theme of the week: "joy," by sharing what makes THEM smile. Here are a couple of the amazing blurbs we received:

What makes them smile? 

  • when other people smile
  • life and being able to travel without being afraid
  • cheesy dad jokes
  • feeling friendliness
  • my daughter
  • cool breezes & sunny days
  • volunteering
  • groupon
  • genuine kindness
  • feeling appreciated and appreciative
  • puppies!!
  • happy babies
  • my girlfriend
  • the generosity of others
  • hearing other people's unique and loud laughter
  • watching my kids sleep
  • the infectious smiles of the KK volunteers
  • family
  • yummy vegetarian food
  • having the whole family together
  • looking up through the canopy of trees

Hopefully, this inspires you to think about what makes YOU smile and what brings joy into YOUR life. :)

--Christina on Jul 24, 2011

How I Spent My July 4th

 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

Father's Day Reflections

This Father's Day we invited Karma Kitchen guests to reflect on the most important lesson they'd learned from their fathers, and to share it with us. Here is a selection of the beautiful insights they surfaced: 


  • Be fearless.
  • Never give up on love.
  • Find the strength to admit when you're wrong and move on.
  • My dad has taught me that there are always at least 2 sides to every story.
  • Sweet sounds never die!
  • You are a more powerful force in the universe than you realize.
  • When I asked my old school father from the Philippines about "foods of life," he was too embarrased to tell me, but his one statement to me was "never disrespect anyone."
  • Breathe.
  • Live in the moment, go after what makes you happy.
  • Think about where the things you put in your body came from.
  • Don't forget that everything is from a perspective.
  • Don't be lazy! You have to make space for the things that are important in life.
  • My father taught me the importance of temperance, keeping an even keel, and understanding that there can be many different opinions without a clear answer.
  • Amont the many bits of wisdom that I keep finding in my mind, my dad taught me: politeness, patience, and persistence.
  • Work hard & don't do drugs.
  • Patience, caring, and above all selfless dedication.
  • Clean room!
  • Use your head for something besides a hat rack!
  • However great maybe the success, stay rooted.
  • Nothing is impossible, you just need to try harder.
  • Bless the day as it blesses us. Now is all there is.
  • The most important wisdom I've received and am still receiving is from the natural world.
  • Dad taught me that when starting to hammer a nail, you should hold the nail yourself.
  • To be grateful for each day.
  • The heart is free, have the courage to follow it.
  • Always look for foreward and plan for the future, but remember to enjoy the moment as well.
  • It's easy to get more money. It's hard to get more time.
  • May everyone be happy!
  • Those who deserve the great, must first earn the little.
  • Always work hard to reach your goals.
  • Be kind and helpful to others!
  • Always buy generic -- its the same ingredients as brand name.
  • My father gave me space to grow.
  • I love my father for being tolerant of my behavior. He's taught me to sympathize with others and to appreciate those around you.
  • Wisdom observed from my father: the more unsettled other people might be, become the calmer one to calm the whole environment.
  • My father taught me that when I'm criticized  I need to "consider the source." In other words, the person who offers the criticism may have their own problems or defects and may not understand where you are coming from. So you must not take all negative comments to heart

--Bhoutik on Jun 20, 2011

Karma Kitchen Gets Tagged with Chalk Art!

Yesterday, Karma Kitchen was tagged! The restaurant owners told us that a young man came in the day before, had a meal at Taste of Himalayas, and spent the afternoon doing a "labor of love" chalk art outside the restaurant. Unfortunately, the building caretakers washed it away but it stayed long enough to be captured on tape ...

Chalk Art

Chalk Art

Thank you, Anonymous Friend!

--'Rav on Jun 13, 2011

Dancing Erupts at Karma Kitchen :)

Some of the posts from our Twitter and Facebook accounts ... 

A spontaneous dance erupts, as a guest hears Bhangra music on our speakers and everyone joins in and claps away:  Two minutes of pure joy.  Strangers celebrating next to each other as if they're family. Only at KK! :)

3 halleluyeahs for the deacon that dined at #KarmaKitchen!

World environment day at #KarmaKitchen celebrated by each person walking in the door - no straws!  Here's a pledge that a guest wrote in today:

A volunteer today flew in from New York y'day, so he could make sure to get in #KarmaKitchen volunteering today!  

If #KarmaKitchen vols didn't have an age requirement, these 2 are totally ready to serve: And these two also:  It's great to be planting seeds of generosity.  Some parents bring their youngsters with their piggy banks, so they get the experience of paying it forward.

"I'm feeling so much love towards all the volunteers right now." A volunteer, after they took this photo:

In case you don't recognize the faces, here it is again -- the crew that served 116 folks today:

--Twitter Volunteer :) on Jun 5, 2011

Can I Take A Menu Home With Me? not a question one often hears at Karma Kitchen. :) But the 70-ish year old woman asking was so sincere, I had to learn more.

Turns out she was visiting from Sweden and wanted a souvenir to take back. Not for herself per se -- she didn't even come to dine, she was just walking by and stopped to read the menu out front. No, she said she simply wanted to have something to show her neighbors that Americans weren't "all about red, white, and blue," that there was a beautiful, compassionate side. It's hard to describe her presence in words -- very serene, very satisfied with life, and clearly moved at what was going on in that little restaurant in Berkeley on that Sunday afternoon.

I told her giving a laminated menu away wouldn't be the best option, but invited her to come in and have a look at the kindness table. There we saw a copy of the book Peace Pilgrim, and I told her she reminded me of her. Yes, she said, I try to be that in my own way. Moving to see the kind of beauty that space attracts....

--CJ on Jun 1, 2011

A Smile Pin

At the end of Karma Kitchen last Sunday, one of the first-time volunteers sincerely shares: "This was the best day of my life."   We served 100+ guests, and its amazing how many new people keep coming to KK and experiencing a gift-economy.  There's always a challenge or two, :) but for an overwhelming majority, the experience is totally beautiful.  A guest who dined with us wants to gift us produce every week now!  He opened his note with: "I have a small organic garden in western Yolo county. I have never sold anything from it." Anne served a table and they recognized her from a month ago, when she had tagged them with (amazing!) brownies that she had made; and then, yesterday she had a chance to do it again.  We also tag guests with small things.  A little kid was so excited to receive a smile-pin -- that he had to give away to whomever he liked.  Vandana-the-twin posted a poem about her first experience, where she ended with: "I was reminded that service is a way to come together as a community."

--MJ on May 25, 2011

My First Volunteer Experience at Karma Kitchen

walking to the restaurant
greeted by a smile

talking and learning during orientation
sharing ideas and experiences with others
giving best efforts and
smiling at the same time
laughing when the chef told jokes
behind the scenes
volunteers working together
team work

running back and forth 
people seated 
at times packed

sharing and exchanging roles
an experience
of service and giving
with laughter
smiles and joy

happy to be... 
and to serve.

I was reminded of service as a way to come together as a community.

--Vandana, the other Twin :) on May 24, 2011

Buddha Photo From DC Restaurant

Here was a photo I took, last year sometime, at the KK-DC location:

--Siri on May 17, 2011

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