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“Our collard greens are from scratch and are delicious. Our red beans are really good. Our gumbo is great. The fried chicken is a standout. And our catfish – you can get it fried, grilled, or blackened – it’s so good, we could basically just be a catfish place and satisfy a lot of our regulars.”

That’s Martha Wiggins, two-time James Beard Foundation Award semifinalist and Executive Chef at Cafe Reconcile, when asked to describe what her loyal following of regulars most frequently order at her lunchtime-only restaurant.

The menu consists of rich, flavorful renditions of New Orleans favorites, which helps to explain that army of repeat customers walking through the door each day. But there’s something else that gets locals excited about this Central City neighborhood restaurant: it’s mission to train and support disadvantaged New Orleans youth.

“This is Black southern food at a very high level and I’m proud of the food we create here,” Wiggins said. “But the reason I’m here and not executive chef at some other restaurant, is that I believe in Cafe Reconcile’s mission to care for and empower the young people in our program.”

“We can use work experience in the food and hospitality industry to help them discover how much they are capable of,” she added. “We can give our interns stability in their lives, something many of them haven’t had before.”

Cafe Reconcile is a nonprofit workforce development program founded in 1996 to overcome many of the challenges facing New Orleans’ children and young adults. These are challenges that still exist in the city today.

Fifty-one percent of the city’s Black children, for example, live in poverty. And, according to the “2023 Kids Count Data Book” by The Annie E. Casey Foundation, Louisiana ranks 49th in the U.S. for the overall health and well-being of children and young people.

“One-third of New Orleans’s young people have been impacted by serious trauma,” explained Monique Robinson, chief program officer at Cafe Reconcile.

“That might be environmental trauma – our current interns were just beginning their lives during, or in the immediate years of recovery following, Hurricane Katrina,” Robinson said. “Or it might be inadequate schooling or violence in their lives. New Orleans children, especially poor, Black children, go through a lot.”

Since its founding, more than 2,000 young interns, aged 16-24, have completed the Cafe Reconcile program, which consists of 14 weeks of in-person training which includes cultivating social-emotional skills, side-by-side learning in the cafe, and career and education exploration. After the initial 14 weeks, interns are placed in externships and job placements and receive 12 additional months of support from Cafe Reconcile staff.

Head in for lunch at the cafe’s spacious dining area, and it is likely the food you enjoy will be prepared and served by one of the program’s interns under the instruction of Chef Wiggins and the Cafe Reconcile team.

“It’s amazing to watch them grow,” Robinson said. “So many of our interns enter the program lacking confidence and direction, and as the weeks go by, you can watch their insecurity slowly fall off and see them flower into more confident individuals.”

“Whether they want to go into the food industry, or electrical work, or something totally different,” she said, “our objective is to meet each intern where they are and to give them a customized experience that will help them reach their goals.”

Chef Wiggins, as it turns out, might be the perfect person to help with this monumental task. Though it’s not necessarily because of the James Beard Award nominations she earned while heading the kitchen at popular French Quarter eatery, Sylvain. 

“When I received the phone call about the first nomination,” she remembered, laughing, “I was like, ‘That sounds cool, but I don’t know what the hell that is.’ It never occurred to me that people thought I was good at this. I just knew I worked hard.”

It was that work ethic, but also decades of overcoming challenges of her own that prepared her to work with at-risk youth at Cafe Reconcile. Wiggins grew up just outside of Washington, D.C. with two caring parents who cooked and hosted parties, laying the groundwork for their daughter’s future love for food and hospitality.

“What I did not love, however,” she said, “was school. I hated it, and I actually dropped out. I don’t remember being depressed or anything like that, but I’m sure I was feeling pretty shitty about myself. My confidence was shot.”

Just a child, Wiggins got a job at a deli, on Saturday mornings to start, and she remembers the adrenaline that pumped through her 15-year-old veins as a line of customers wrapped around the building each week.

“From 7 a.m. until 1 p.m. every Saturday, we were slammed,” Wiggins said. “I’m not sure I knew what I loved about it back then, but I think it was that as I ran bagels up and down stairs for hours, I felt like I had a purpose. It gave me direction I’d never had before.”

Wiggins eventually enrolled in culinary school. She excelled, found a mentor, and graduated. Soon after that, she was rising through the ranks at Sylvain.

That same sense of purpose and direction, which proved such a powerful tool for the burgeoning chef, has been equally powerful for many of the interns at Cafe Reconcile. One hundred and thirty-two young people took part in Cafe Reconcile last year. Each one has a different set of needs, and the program offers counseling, case management, workshops, and training to help meet those needs and unlock their potential.

When asked what makes the program effective, Monique Robinson’s mind went to one recent intern, in particular. She was recommended to Cafe Reconcile by another community organization who thought enrolling in the cafe’s program could help address her social anxiety. On the first day, the intern couldn’t even walk through the door because she felt uncomfortable in a room with so many people.

“In the first weeks of the program, you’d ask her a question,” Robinson said, “and she’d just look at you, unable to respond.”

Cafe Reconcile staff weren’t sure how to help. This is a vocal industry after all, and communication is essential. Staff eventually encouraged the intern to write her thoughts and answers on paper, allowing her to communicate more confidently. As her confidence grew, so did her courage, and she began to trust the adults working with her.

“She started to speak up,” Robinson said. “And then she started to speak up a lot! As she learned to trust the people around her, we saw her come out of her shell.”

The young woman, just 19 years old, graduated from Cafe Reconcile in December 2022. She began a job at a local restaurant the following month. Still, her transformation continued. By March of that year, she was promoted to shift manager, responsible for communicating with and managing an entire team of adults.

“Everyone’s success is going to look different,” Robinson said. “Of course we have milestones around employment and certification, and of course the quality of the food coming out of our kitchen is a priority. But at the heart of all this, it’s about is this young person doing better now than when they first came through our doors?”

When you step into Cafe Reconcile for lunch, you’ll feel the answer is yes.

Wiggins’ time at Sylvain was a huge success in so many ways. Despite the fact that she struggled with challenges of her own – including burnout from long hours in the kitchen, and an abusive relationship at home – she grew into a mother figure for many of her employees.

“I would just listen to what they were going through,” she said, “and I noticed a lot of my younger staff were struggling with the same things: poor quality of life; unaffordable housing; a lack of stability – things like that.”

“The older I got, the more I felt a pull to help them,” Wiggins added. “I’m a Black woman, and many of the people I worked with were Black. These were big problems affecting us and I wanted to find solutions.”

When Cafe Reconcile reached out to her in 2021, it felt like the perfect fit, though the new Executive Chef sensed certain expectations around her arrival. “I think there was a thought that I was going to come in as this James Beard-nominated chef and change everything. Maybe that’s even what some donors wanted,” she said.

Her career to this point took place in the kitchens of fancier restaurants preparing French-inspired foods. Wiggins felt a disconnect, and said Cafe Reconcile provided an opportunity to focus on a cuisine closer to her heart.

“Up until this point, I had only worked in white spaces,” she said. “But Reconcile was not that. When I got here, I saw a group of regulars who came in and spent some of their hard-earned money with us. They didn’t want me to change the menu, they wanted me to keep the food they loved – things like turkey necks, smothered chicken, gumbo.”

That’s exactly the food you’ll find at Cafe Reconcile, along with Louisiana staples like po-boys, crab cakes, and a dessert that combines both bread pudding and bananas foster. The only change is that it’s now made under the tutelage of an award-winning chef.

And in her new role, that chef can’t only think about her customers. Each decision is also focused on what’s best for her interns. That includes what’s served on the menu.

“I wanted them to learn what this industry often forgets: that French food, European food – it isn’t the only way to make a career. Our food is special, too, and food with roots in Africa deserves peoples’ attention.”

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Matt HainesMatt Haines

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