On Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in New Orleans, Café Reconcile serves a soul food lunch Tuesday through Friday. With dishes like crispy okra, a catfish plate, red beans and rice, and a selection of po’ boys, the menu is quintessentially Cajun. But there is an important distinction. The staff members are hospitality industry professionals, but they are also “trainer advocates,” or TAs, who commit to working with interns ages 16 to 24 who are in the Reconcile New Orleans’ paid internship program.
The cafe is helmed by chef Martha Wiggins, formerly executive chef of Sylvain and a semifinalist for multiple James Beard Awards. During a period of reconsideration as a result of Covid-19 shutdowns in 2020, Wiggins decided she wanted a change.
“Something was missing for me,” she says of her career as an executive chef. She noticed that many employees in the industry, in particular those of color, needed additional support systems, and she “didn’t have any resources as a chef to be a social worker or a counselor.” When Café Reconcile approached her with an executive chef offer, she was reluctant to return to that position. “My initial reaction was, ‘You guys want me to change the culinary profile or something like that. That’s not my goal right now.’ Anyway, I just sat down and talked with them, and in that moment, I knew, oh, this is what you’re supposed to be doing.”
Aside from a focus on making everything from scratch in order to teach the foundational skills she learned in culinary school, Wiggins has been adamant that the cafe maintains its own identity as a neighborhood spot and a place where interns are the priority. She trains the TAs first on their job responsibilities; then they are assigned an intern to work with one-on-one.
It’s not about me. Reconcile has existed for 20 years. I hope it exists for another 40.”
“It doesn’t work here unless you want to work with young people,” she says. Although some of the TAs pursue their own continuing education goals or work on the side as bartenders, they understand that Café Reconcile is their first priority. “A lot of people start that way here with a side job and then realize, ‘This is what I want to give my effort to, and I can do more here than I thought I could.’ And they invest more here, which is great.”
The cafe is only one facet of the overall program: Interns begin their 14-week program with Monique Robinson, the chief program officer, and a team of licensed master social workers and counselors. They work on foundational skills, emotional intelligence, and mental health, along with identifying necessities some interns may need assistance with, from secure housing to completing high school education.
“The first month of training is a lot of stabilization, a lot of foundation building, and preparation for the occupational skills training,” Robinson says. The second phase of the internship is working at the cafe, and then interns receive mentoring from an employer who partners with Reconcile New Orleans. “It may be within the hospitality industry or not,” says Robinson. “What they’re learning here can apply to any industry.” The last phase is a paid externship with the goal to connect interns to permanent, quality employment. “It’s not just [about] a minimum-wage job,” Robinson clarifies. “They can find a minimum-wage job on their own—but literally like, okay, let’s look at the culture of the organization, the employer, opportunity for growth.”
That expectation starts at Café Reconcile, where Robinson, Wiggins, and their team have “created that safe space where they can make mistakes, where they can learn things where the stakes aren’t so high,” Wiggins says.
Although the program is donor-driven, it’s community-driven, too, in that simply coming in and having lunch at the cafe is a way for locals and visitors to invest in young people and their futures. That, more than anything, is what makes the food at Café Reconcile soul food: valuing people first and foremost.
“Reconcile is part of a support system that is too few and far between,” Wiggins says. “[There’s] just something about being around young people that brings a different spirit to the work we do.”
- by Amber Chase
- by Emily Havener
- by Amber Chase