NEW ORLEANS – Saints lineman Zach Strief has found an unusual New Orleans restaurant where he can satisfy both his cravings for Creole cooking and his hunger to give back.
Strief raves about its popular white beans and shrimp special, but Café Reconcile is no ordinary restaurant in the Big Easy — known for famous eateries and celebrity chefs. It's a nonprofit business established for the sole purpose of giving troubled youth a chance to succeed in a uniquely New Orleans way.
Many of the 16- to 22-year olds preparing menu items and waiting tables at Café Reconcile never finished school and some have arrest records. They all enter the restaurant's three-month training program in hopes they can leave behind the poverty and crime and become a part of their city's proud tradition of a food and hospitality industry.
"There's not a great comprehension, I don't think, of how bad of a life some of these kids come from," the 320-pound Strief said during a recent lunch of smothered pork chops, sweet corn, collard greens and jalapeño cornbread. "If you're not a part of it, if you don't live it, it's very easy to forget that's happening to people."
People like 19-year-old Kentrell Marrow, who wore a long white apron during a recent lunch shift as he proudly served bananas foster bread pudding he'd artfully decorated with a touch of chocolate sauce.
Marrow dropped out of the 10th grade three times. He has struggled with addictions to marijuana and prescription drugs. He used to belong to a gang and carry a gun. He won't say which gang, or whether he ever used the gun. He was arrested for possession of cocaine that he insists was not his.
Now he realizes that it doesn't matter whose cocaine it was. If only for the sake of his seven-month-old son, he had to get out of that environment.
"I was having all types of trouble — gang violence, drug addiction, all type of madness," Marrow said. "When I came here they promised me a brighter future. They gave me something to look forward to."
Now Marrow can whip up all sorts of menu items including baked macaroni, shrimp pasta, steaks and stuffed bell peppers. More than that, he said Cafe Reconcile taught him self-confidence and self-affirmation. He said he learned he did not have to change who he was, just become a better version of himself. He hopes one day to open his own restaurant, specializing in Creole, Cajun and soul food.
His is the kind of story that got Strief involved in the program.
The 6-foot-7 Cincinnati native first became acquainted with Cafe Reconcile when he and his wife, Mandy, were setting up a charitable foundation and looking for a cause to support.
Soon after, Strief attended one of the daily breakfasts held exclusively for staff and program participants. It is during these breakfasts that a nun known as Sister Mary Lou Specha encourages those present to share what is on their minds, perhaps things that upset them, or things for which they are thankful.
Strief was moved by what he heard. One teenage boy described sitting on the couch the night before, when suddenly a SWAT team broke down the door and hauled his brother away.
"It's easy to not realize that's happening to people and maybe it's a 16-year-old kid, and maybe there's no one else there but his brother," said Strief, drafted by New Orleans out of Northwestern in 2006. "You don't think about that. I don't think anyone does that's not in that situation."
Another person said he was thankful for the breakfast itself, without which he might not have eaten that day.
"The thing that got me the first time I came, the stories that I heard at that breakfast were so different than I would have thought," Strief said. "They were so much worse."
The training program begins with three weeks of life skills classes in a rented room across the street. Participants are taught interviewing skills, the importance of speaking clearly, projecting confidence, looking people in the eyes and even networking with people established in the hospitality industry.
They move next to the Café Reconcile, where they take turns doing everything from cooking to waiting tables to washing dishes. They are then placed in an internship at some of the most respected restaurants and hotels in the city, including the Ritz Carlton and establishments owned by celebrity chefs Emeril Lagasse and John Besh.
Specha said it's a struggle for some interns, only three months after they've begun to break away from an isolated existence in poverty-stricken neighborhoods, to suddenly find themselves immersed in refined opulence.
She spoke of one young man who quickly went AWOL from his internship at the Roosevelt Hotel, where populist Gov. Huey Long was known to stay when he visited New Orleans many years ago.
"We called him up, like, 'What's going on?' And he says, 'I don't belong there. I don't fit in.'
"It was like his world was so different," Specha said, noting that the person eventually returned to the program and now works full-time as a doorman at the hotel. "Some of them still feel like, 'I'm not worthy enough. I'm not good enough. Nobody's ever treated me like this. Nobody's ever given me a safe place.'"
There's now a waiting list to get into Café Reconcile's program, although an expansion is under way at its headquarters in the city's Central City neighborhood, which is starting to show the early signs of renaissance. For years, the area was overrun by drug dealing, prostitution, and violent crime.
The restaurant occupies the ground floor of a five-story brick building that used to be a furniture store. Old bead board endures on the ceilings and lower walls. The upper walls feature the work of local artists, some containing themes of hope and faith.
When Strief came in for lunch, Marrow and several waiters swarmed around him, talking, smiling and getting his autograph. On occasion, Strief has gone behind the line and helped cook, making honey-bourbon glazed shrimp and Andouille skewers.
Specha, wearing a black scarf with small gold fleur-de-lis prints on it, smiled as she said how fitting it was that, of all different types of players on a football team, it is a massive lineman that would gravitate to the unusual restaurant she helps run.
And while Strief modestly describes his role as limited to raising money, Specha said his involvement is much more significant because of how beloved the Saints are by people of all backgrounds in New Orleans.
Just ask Marrow how important Strief's presence is.
"It is really meaningful because it's like, Saints players, we all know they live in the area, but at the same time, when we're watching them on Sunday it's like they're worlds away," Morrow said. "I could be right down the street from the Superdome in the Third Ward, watching the game, but it feels like this game is way off somewhere where you can't even touch it.
"But when someone like that comes and shows his face, and to see how down to earth he is, it shows you success is obtainable."