As anyone who has lived on a shoestring budget can attest, lunch can often feel like a frivolous waste of hard-earned cash. Yes, it’s the second most impor- tant meal of the day, and if you’ve skipped breakfast it gains even more significance. But those hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars spent every year on sandwiches and sweet tea could be directed toward more noble causes: A tropical vacation. New shoes. Or, perhaps the money could be given to someone who really needs it.
A midday meal at the Starfish Café is an excep- tion to the frivolity of lunch dates. At first glance, Starfish appears to be an average neighborhood diner—checkered tablecloths, today's specials scrawled in chalk on the blackboard, friendly servers toting aromatic plates of shrimp jambalaya and BLTs. But here, my 8-layer quiche is not just the dish du jour—it’s today's homework assignment for the group of aspiring chefs rushing around the open kitchen. What would, under other circumstances, be nothing more than a pocket-emptying lunch bill is, at Starfish, dedicated to the culinary education of these chefs, giving each of them a shot at a better future.
Since the Starfish Café opened in 2001 (original- ly as the Bread and Butter Café), it has been doing much more than simply cooking up a hearty lunch. The café has helped hundreds of people in Savannah find a way out of homelessness through its free 12- week culinary training program—offered in collabo- ration with Savannah's Union Mission and Savannah Technical College—which gives people the opportu- nity to gain skills and experience that can provide a secure job and, ultimately, a better life.
Over the course of those six years, the Starfish's mission has been realized in over 300 graduates who have gone on to work in the culinary industry, and Union Mission's executive director, Reverend Michael Elliott, couldn't be happier with the pro- gram's success.
"Savannah is one of the most successful commu nities in dealing with the problems of homelessness," Elliott says. "If you ask the folks in Washington D.C. or Atlanta, they'll tell you: Nothing comes close to what we do here."
Elliott isn't blinded by bias; the Starfish has drawn attention on both local and national levels. Al Roker of NBC's Today Show made a trip to the café to deliver one of five "Lend a Hand" awards for the impact the Starfish has made in the community. Their recipes have been published in a cookbook, Starfish Café: Changing Lives One Recipe at a Time, which is perpetually sold out, and grads are eagerly embraced by some of Savannah's top restaurants.
Kelly Yambor, executive chef at Elizabeth on 37th—the sumptuous Victorian District establish- ment named one of the Top 25 Restaurants in America by Food & Wine magazine—has worked with Starfish graduate Larry Morrell for three years, and says the decision to hire him was a no-brainer. "He just shone above the rest," says Yambor. "He was so professional and personable and you could tell that the program made him much more self-assured."
Indeed, Morrell can confirm that his stint at the Starfish was a major turning point in his life. "It worked wonders for my life," he says effusively. "The instructors give you the mindset that you can do anything, and I found out that it's true."
Morrell may not have been the type of "at-risk" student that the Starfish seeks to attract, but he admits to suffering from a seemingly less-threaten- ing, but even more prolific problem than homeless- ness: Aimlessness.
"I was definitely headed down the wrong path," he says. "I didn't really care about anything." But, like so many Starfish students, he knew he liked cooking, and that was enough to get him headed in the right direction.
Immediately after graduating from the Starfish program in 2004, Morrell landed his dream job at Elizabeth's and now has plans to open his own cater- ing company in Savannah. "The sky's the limit," he says. "Like anything, you have to be dedicated,
but the Starfish taught me that possibilities really are endless."
Rachel Petraglia, director of the Starfish culinary training program, has found her dream job, too. After cooking in some of Miami, Florida’s four-star restaurants, including Chateau Elan and Wish, teaching at the Starfish seemed like a welcome change of pace. She wasn't aware of the café's unique mission when she applied for the position in 2004, but as soon as she learned about the partnership with Union Mission, she was hooked.
"I left the interview thinking, 'I don't care what it pays or what they have me do, I would love to work at a place where I am helping people in this community,' " she says.
That "feel good" sensation has a way of hooking just about everyone who steps inside the Starfish. Since all proceeds from café sales go towards sup- porting the $300,000 annual operation of the culi- nary program, diners are more like shareholders than customers, getting to see a return on their invest- ment in each student who discovers his or her calling in the kitchen.
"It all comes back to the students", says Elliott. "Many of them, when they start, they won’t look you in the eye, they mumble, they have a limp hand- shake, but by the time they graduate they're these great, personable people."
I visit the café during week eight of the pro- gram—a critical turning point when students discov- er one of two things: They either love the kitchen, or they can't take the heat.
Twenty-three year old Kia Bryant is one of the students responsible for my lunch today. She's made it through the first seven weeks of cooking funda- mentals, from nutrition to knife skills—a cakewalk compared to the final five weeks of the café boot camp she's just begun.
"There's a lot more to cooking than I ever thought there was," Bryant says, with a whiff of exhaustion. If she survives both the classroom training and the café experience—and only 40% of Starfish students do—she'll walk away with a ServSafe certificate and 20 college credits she can then apply toward a culinary arts degree at Savannah Technical College. Or, she can look for work at a number of local restaurants that have embraced Starfish alums.