Kitchen aid

Cafe 458 feeds the soul and raises awareness

It's a long way from glittering Pano's & Paul's to Cafe 458, a restaurant that primarily serves Atlanta's homeless population. But that's the journey Kari Smid-Gomez has made in the last four years.

Smid-Gomez and Cafe 458 (458 Edgewood Ave., 404-523-1239) recently racked up four Readers' Pick awards in Creative Loafing's annual Best of Atlanta edition: best chef, best brunch, best waitstaff and best new intown restaurant. If you're wondering how a cafe for the homeless does that, the answer's a bit complicated.

On weekends, Cafe 458 opens to the public to serve brunch, and it's that operation that won the CL awards. The function of the brunch is to raise money for the regular weekday operation of the cafe and its parent organization, Samaritan House, which also provides housing and employment services for homeless men and women with addiction and mental health problems. Indeed, to get to Cafe 458's dining room you have to walk through a Narcotics Anonymous meeting room.

The Norwegian-born Smid-Gomez's involvement with Cafe 458 began about three years ago when she worked as a volunteer cook for the restaurant's regular homeless patrons. She had been working at Pano's & Paul's as a line cook after graduating from the California Culinary Academy in 1999. (She also has a degree in cultural anthropology from the University of Georgia.) When her daughter was born in 2000, she decided to take some time off and began an upscale catering company, Salt of the Earth.

"But I also wanted to do some volunteer work," the 30-year-old chef said. "I know it sounds cheesy, but with my daughter's birth, I had this strong instinct to take care of people."

Although she is no longer involved in the weekday operation of the cafe, Gomez-Smid says the experience has been life-changing for her.

"Really, I had to learn a lot about myself," she said. "I discovered I had some very stubborn values that I had to let go of. Of course, I wanted to do fancier food at the cafe, but the men and women eating there weren't interested. They wanted comfort food, the kind of stuff they grew up eating — overcooked pork chops and mushy green beans.

"In culinary school," she continued, "you learn there is a right way and a wrong way to do things. The classic way is the only way and the attitude you come away with is that if the people don't like it, they obviously don't know anything about food. I had to completely let go of that way of thinking."

Has that affected her work generally?

"Oh, yes," she replied. "I have a different view of being a chef. Now, it's about making people happy instead of making my ego happy. I've worked under a lot of chefs and the more attention they've gotten, the more they think it's all about them. They stop learning because they think they know everything."

Amen to that. The examples of brilliant chefs who stagnate in a culinary version of the Narcissus myth are legion.

Not surprisingly, Smid-Gomez's weekend brunch is a hybrid of Southern comfort food cooked with high style. "Someone called it nouveau Southern eclectic," she said. "I combine Carolina-style pulled pork and eggs Benedict with braised greens and Dijon hollandaise, for example."

That's just the beginning. Smid-Gomez puts two huge filets of cornmeal-crusted trout over eggs scrambled with smoked Gouda and then sauces the plate with crawfish remoulade. That's a regular dish, as is the pulled pork, but you'll also find half a dozen specials every weekend. One special I sampled featured grit cakes — crunchy and creamy — topped with poached eggs, shrimp and a creamy corn sauce. There was also focaccia topped with barbecued pulled salmon, red pepper aioli and pepper jack cheese. Eggs were optional. A stack of fried green tomatoes with goat cheese and onion jam, blueberry pancakes, a tofu scramble and lemon-raspberry bread pudding French toast were also available.

If you're worried that the notable food is served by stern Salvation Army types, forget it. The cheerful orange and yellow dining room is staffed by servers pleasant enough to deserve their CL award. You want to tip heavily, because that adds to your contribution to Samaritan House's work.

Brunching at Cafe 458 isn't just about having a good meal. It's also about increasing awareness of a critical problem in our city. There are, according to Sherrie Snipes-Williams, director of Samaritan House, 12,000 homeless people on the streets of Atlanta any given day. "We are part of a network of organizations like the Atlanta Community Food Bank dealing with this problem," she says.

Snipes-Williams makes the point that the homeless population is stereotyped. "Of the 12,000 estimated homeless," she said, "maybe 4,000 are chronically homeless people. The rest are people who end up on the streets temporarily because of the bad economy, because they are fleeing from domestic violence, because they have substance-abuse challenges or mental health histories."

It's pretty widely believed that homeless people are lazy and choose not to work, I say.

"That's a myth," Snipes-Williams says. "Sixty percent of our clients have high school degrees or higher. There are many people, the working poor, who become homeless because of the economy. And drug addiction is a huge problem. Cafe 458 is not a soup kitchen, in any case. We don't just feed our clients. We are also involved in case management, helping them work out a plan of self-sufficiency. All of them are referred by other agencies."

Smid-Gomez likewise bristles at the stereotyping. "These are real people with problems. I've been a paycheck away from ending up on the street myself. I've watched people who deal with their addictions turn from being surly and unwilling to listen to anyone into deeply caring people who would walk to the end of the earth for me." She draws a breath.

"Cooking and dining are about love," she says. "You can choose to share love or not."

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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