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Now serving soul food"

Jeff Chu
Second Prize - $5,000

Jeff Chu is an award-winning NYC-based journalist who serves as editor-at-large at Fast Company magazine (fastcompany.com) and reports on religion for Beacon (beaconreader.com). His work has also appeared in Time, The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and Monocle. The author of "Does Jesus Really Love Me?" and a regular contributor to Daily Guideposts, he is an elder at Old First Reformed Church in Brooklyn, New York.  He is a previous Amy Writing Award winner.


OVERVIEW

The fried chicken at the King’s Kitchen in Charlotte, North Carolina, is outstanding—crisp outside, juicy within. But what chef and restaurateur Jim Noble really cares about is feeding the hungry and transforming the lives of the homeless—all in the name of Jesus.

Two skinny men in ill-fitting shirts and jankily knotted ties walk into the foyer of the King’s Kitchen in Charlotte, N.C. They pause, peering nervously through the inner door. The younger man catches a fugitive shirttail, stuffing it back into his khakis. Finally, after nearly a minute, they open the door and walk hesitantly in.

It’s 9:30, late in the breakfast service. The restaurant is nearly empty—only one table of diners. For a couple of minutes, the men wait, shuffling their feet and shifting their weight from leg to leg in an arrhythmic cha-cha.

Finally, a hostess approaches with a smile. “Can I help you?”

“We seen on the news that you was hiring,” the older man says.

“I’m sorry,” she says softly. “We’re not hiring.”

He frowns and drops his head.

“We seen it on the news that you was hiring,” he says again.

“Can we still fill out applications?” the younger man says.

“Sure,” she says.

The older one glances at a white metal colander sitting on the wooden counter.

“Can I take some candy?” he says.

“Sure,” she says.

***

Three, five, ten times a day, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the scene replays. They come because they know the King’s Kitchen is different.

Jim Noble, a successful Charlotte chef and restaurateur, had done the white-tablecloth thing, and had been pretty successful at it. But he felt a calling to set a different kind of table. He envisioned an eatery that would serve the Southern-inflected food for which he had become known, but he also wanted to feed souls.

Three years ago, he opened the King’s Kitchen. The restaurant funnels all of its proceeds to Christian ministry. It budgets $150,000 a year to feed the poor. Every Wednesday afternoon, it opens for Bible study, drawing dozens of people, many homeless, who then stay for a hot meal. On Fridays in colder months, Noble packs a van with coffee and food and seeks out the hungry on the streets of impoverished nearby neighborhoods. The restaurant also hosts a training program that combines spiritual counseling, culinary training, and a job. And on Sundays, Noble turns the space into a church; he’s the preacher.

A restaurant as an experimental engine of social change isn’t unique. The King’s Kitchen was loosely inspired by Café Reconcile, a Jesuit-run eatery in New Orleans that doubles as a ministry to at-risk youth. In London, there’s Fifteen, which celebrity chef Jamie Oliver started as a project to train unemployed youth. In Seattle, FareStart serves lunch in a not-for-profit restaurant that doubles as a training center for the disadvantaged; thousands of youth and formerly homeless people have graduated from its kitchens in the past twenty-five years.

What sets the King’s Kitchen apart is Noble’s fervent Pentecostal faith. He says his goal “is to teach people to have a relationship with God.” In conversation, he refers constantly to the Bible. Now, he cites Psalm 107. “Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for mankind,” it says, “for he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things.”

***

The King’s Kitchen has a plum spot in Charlotte’s business district, at the intersection of Church and Trade. Within a few minutes’ walk, you’ll find the headquarters of Bank of America, Chiquita, and Duke Energy. By noon on a Friday, the restaurant is chockablock with white-collar workers in business casual.

They come for dishes like biscuits with sausage gravy and fried chicken so perfectly cooked that, on my visit, the battered skin nearly shatters. These classics occasionally get a slight twist—the biscuits, tender and flaky at heart but unusually crisped on the outside, are heart-stoppingly topped by shards of crisp bacon. But the menu—which nods trendily at provenance, citing A.B. Varney country ham and those ubiquitous Anson Mills grits—never veers far from Southern and comforting.

It’s nearly impossible to get Noble to talk about food—he turns constantly to the context. “Just a few blocks from here is one of the most dangerous ZIP codes in America,” he says as we sit at his table, a corner spot from which he can survey the whole dining room and look into the kitchen. He’s referring to 28206, which, in 2012, was ranked the country’s 11th most crime-ridden neighborhood. Each year, a 28206 resident has a 1-in-9 chance of falling victim to some crime.

“The need here is huge,” Noble says, launching a mini-sermon in his light drawl. “And here’s the deal: A lot of people think it’s a good thing for the church to do things like this. People look at this restaurant and they go, ‘That’s just awesome!’ But if you look at Jesus’ words, it’s not. No. This is how it should be. We should be taking care of the poor and the widows and the orphans. It’s not even an option. If you go through the Scriptures, part of our walk with God is to love other people. We have to help the poor. If the church would take that calling seriously, we could get the government out of doing what the church should be doing. We keep pushing it on politicians—that’s the church’s fault. The church should do what it is supposed to do.”

A few minutes later, he slides a large, mounted poster from behind the banquette and props it up.

WANTED: FOR THE KINGDOM OF GOD,” it shouts. “Drug addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes, pimps, all sick people, gangbangers, gamblers, strippers, AIDS victims, homosexuals, blind, confused, shoplifters, depressed, suicidal people, demon-possessed, and those who are unsaved and cursed by witchcraft.”

“Some of these are lifestyle choices. Some are afflictions. Doesn’t make a difference,” Noble says. “People in life go through tough times. They need help.”

I press Noble on the bracingly broad sweep on the poster. “This is a Christian ministry, but I’m not trying to be in your face,” he says. “Jesus wasn’t in your face—except if you were the religious people who thought they knew. The church for so long has said, ‘You have to clean up.’ We’re supposed to reach out and love them, not convict them.” He falls silent, but just momentarily. “Sometimes, Christians are their own worst enemies when they present themselves.”

Later, after Noble leaves for a meeting, Reggie Nious, sits down. For 18 years, he worked for the Christian ministry Young Life, and a month ago, Noble hired him to be executive director of the King’s Kitchen. Nious sighs and slides the poster back behind the banquette.

“He still loves his food, but he loves Jesus more,” Nious says. “And he loves that sign. But it scares half the people in this restaurant.”

Thank God for the fried chicken.

***

You don’t have to be a Christian to be in the restaurant’s training program (though you do have to go to daily Bible study) or to be on staff (though he says “those who don’t have a heart for this usually don’t last”). You do have to have a high tolerance for contemporary Christian praise music, which plays constantly in the kitchen and the bathrooms. (“How Great Is Our God!” is an odd thing to hear while standing at a urinal.)

Five people are currently training. One was a victim of sex trafficking. Another was accepted as the next step in his recovery from a thirty-five-year crack-and-heroin habit. Three others, including Aleef Jamar Nicks, are ex-convicts.

“This is my chance,” says Nicks, who works as a dishwasher. Nicks, the eldest brother of NFL star Hakeem Nicks, has been imprisoned six or seven times—for assault, dealing drugs, violating probation … it’s a long list and he doesn’t want to dwell. “I got to make things right.”

This is exactly what Noble is trying to do with the King’s Kitchen—to make things right by doing what he believes is the Christian thing. He’s in the midst of a capital campaign to raise $300,000 to upgrade the kitchens and expand the training program. Nious has recruited twelve Ambassadors for the King, including several pro football players. The restaurant will hold a fundraising dinner on November 7. And Noble has tiptoed into crowdfunding: “We’re on Inja … Injie … Indo-something?” (Indiegogo. To support the King’s Kitchen, visit: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/be-a-friend-of-the-king-the-king-s-kitchen-bakery)

Noble hopes to build something modeled on the Dream Center, a California ministry founded two decades ago that serves the needy, offering a transitional shelter for families, medical care, housing for victims of human trafficking, and rehabilitation assistance. He wants to provide housing for the homeless. He has his eye on a nearby church with ample property—one of those historic mainline downtown congregations that, with the flight to the suburbs, largely emptied.

A few hot meals? A training program with five people? “This,” he says, looking around the King’s Kitchen, “is not even a drop in the bucket.”

Perhaps not, but it’s a starter.

Published in Beacon, October 29, 2013 (New York, NY)

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