Calif. restaurant transforms those whom society has abandoned

July 12, 1992|By Jane Meredith Adams | Jane Meredith Adams,Contributing Writer

SAN FRANCISCO -- The waiters, waitresses, busboys and chefs at the Delancey Street Restaurant have accumulated a lot of knowledge: how to steal, prostitute, deal drugs and do time in the state penitentiary. But in one of the most dramatic examples of a social make-over, these hard-core ex-felons and ex-drug addicts have transformed themselves into fresh-faced individuals who now graciously serve cucumber sandwiches and salmon mousse in a restaurant they built.

The restaurant is the latest venture of the Delancey Street Foundation, a 21-year-old residential self-help program that accepts no government funding and instead supports itself through its own businesses and private donations.

The foundation, which houses 500 residents in San Francisco and operates on a multimillion-dollar budget, imparts middle-class attitudes about work, speech and dress to people the rest of society has abandoned. It takes its name from the street that was home to many early immigrants on New York City's Lower East Side.

"Everybody here is just like me -- drug users, people who have been in the criminal world most of their lives," said chef Robert Smittle, 43, who came to Delancey Street on a work-release program in lieu of serving eight years in prison for armed robbery and kidnapping. "We're tired of that lifestyle, the running and the drugs and the hurting people. We want to change."

The change is so convincing that patrons sometimes find it difficult to believe that their charming waiter or waitress is actually a Delancey Street resident.

"They'll give you the look -- really?" said Donnese Brown, 24, who came to Delancey Street three years ago after hitting bottom in a drug house. "I told this lady I'd been a prostitute since the age of 12. She said, No! If she'd seen me before, she would have believed it."

The restaurant reflects the Delancey Street philosophy: It was largely built by the residents who learned how to hammer and weld from union officials who donated their time. It is a work in progress, with the staff members training themselves as they go along. And the best standards are expected, from the white tablecloths to the fanned arrangement of the grilled chicken on an afternoon high-tea plate. The restaurant is not in a rundown neighborhood but on the waterfront with a stunning view of the Bay Bridge.

"We've proved that the absolute worst of the population is capable of the absolute best of what's possible in our society," said Delancey Street President Mimi Silbert.

In a time of despair about the seemingly intractable nature of urban poverty and unemployment, an issue brought into focus by the Los Angeles riots, Ms. Silbert said the Delancey Street model offers a proven program for change.

"It's a model that doesn't require experts and doesn't require lots of funding," she said. Instead, the people who society thinks are the problem can provide the solution, she said.

"It's a great program," said Judge Lenard Louie, presiding criminal division judge in San Francisco Superior Court. "From my experience, the success rate is high. I don't see them back in my court as a whole."

In response to the riots, Ms. Silbert will conduct seminars to teach the theory and practice of life at Delancey Street, which operates at the San Francisco residence and houses an additional 400 residents in smaller programs at San Juan Pueblo, N.M., Brewster, N.Y., and Greensboro, N.C. Thirty people will be trained in July in San Francisco.

Typical of the Delancey Street success stories is that of Julio Aguirre, 28, who had never held a job for more than a few weeks before coming to Delancey Street two years ago. Starting at age 12, he had been in and out of juvenile halls and prison. When he faced a 16-year sentence for burglary and other offenses, he asked Delancey Street if he could join its program.

Now he is a fry cook at the Delancey Street Restaurant, training under some of the best chefs in the city, including Wolfgang Puck of Spago fame, who gave a lesson in cooking a tomato sauce.

"I like working in the kitchen," Mr. Aguirre said. "You're rushed. Every day it's something new. You give it your all." When the restaurant set a record with $6,100 in sales at brunch on Mother's Day, the staff cheered.

The Delancey Street model is hierarchical, with each resident entering on the bottom rung, usually starting with a job in maintenance. If successful at that, the resident is promoted and then becomes responsible for teaching someone else a task. Teaching and being responsible for another person are keys to the foundation's philosophy.

Ms. Brown, the waitress, takes classes in computer programming at City College, then shares what she has learned in a class she teaches to residents. "I'm getting straight A's at City College," she said. "This is major to me."

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