It’s a sunny Saturday morning, and my wife and I turn into a residential neighborhood of Santa Rosa, California – the only sign of commerce is a beleaguered shopping mall a few hundred feet away. I glance down at my GPS to make sure this is where we want to be and in doing so I almost pass my destination. There it is tucked away to the left, sandwiched between two homes: Worth our Weight (W.O.W)
The whimsical name brings to mind a weight-loss program or some sort of preemptive apologetic reassurance for long lines. This restaurant has neither. The front is clean, simple and inviting, with large colorful posters on the front window explaining the mission of W.O.W.
And what a mission it is. W.O.W is a culinary apprentice program for 16 to 24 year olds who have faced major challenges in their lives including foster care, difficulties with the law, homelessness or significant family disruption. The program provides tuition-free culinary and food service training to youths that would otherwise be in dangerous or hopeless situations. By entering into the world of food—sustainable farming, professional cooking, and mentoring from food service professionals— many of these youths find their sense of purpose. They learn to share, not just meals, but also a sense of camaraderie. They learn not just to cook, but also to work as a team, to practice self-discipine, and to respect and care for others.
So here we are, to experience what the output of such an ambitious undertaking might taste like.
We are seated promptly. Looking around, we see a Spartan but inviting configuration of wooden community tables and booths; an enthusiastic yet quiet energy pervades the space. Order, efficiency and warmth are the dominant vibe. The maître-d has a gregarious liveliness to her as she seats us at our booth
. Our young waiter, an exceedingly polite youth whose tough look and genuine warmth seem to be at odds with one another, promptly brings out a small dish with scones and coffee cake, and hands us the menu.
Our menu has no prices on them.
Worth our Weight is founded and run by Evelyn Cheatham, anaccomplished culinary chef, and a teacher at the culinary program at Santa Rosa Junior College. As a culinary trainer for incarcerated youth in Sonoma county for over two years, she found the power that growing,cooking and eating good food has on troubled youth. She moved to Sonoma County in 1987 and soon became part of the local food scene, first as a pastry chef at Downtown Bakery and Creamery in Healdsburg and then at Tweets in downtown Santa Rosa. She founded W.O.W in 2006 as a culmination of her years of work in the food industry and her passion for helping underserved youth.
Unburdened by the price tag of our meal, we pick what looks best among a few interesting brunch choices.
It is immediately apparent when Evelyn steps out of the kitchen. She becomes the nexus of warm conversation wherever she goes. She spends more than the required time at each table – you get the sense, she is not just making her rounds, she actually cares about her guests, about her work, about what each individual is worth.
In 2009, Evelyn Cheatham received the City of Santa Rosas Merit Award and was named outstanding Community Services Individual. And W.O.W was featured in Diner’s Drive-Ins & Dives with Guy Fieri in 2011. Yet, none of this is apparent when we stand up to give her a hug. She has the simplicity of someone without an agenda – there is no sizing up, no clever punch-line, just authentic humility, love and gratitude. This, by the way, is at odds with her persona in the kitchen, where we later discover she has a reputation for being exact, demanding and precise. Yet, her presence generates an impressive reaction from her young apprentice staff – it is not fear, or sanctimony - it is something else entirely - respect.
The food is beside the point at this point, but it helps that it is absolutely delicious. And since this meal does not come with a price tag, we are left with the difficult task of figuring out how to appropriately acknowledge this gift that we received today. Money alone seems insufficient, but we make some sort of awkward calculation in our heads – this is a different experience: having to figure out what things are worth to us. And this brings home the realization that there are certain experiences that are best left without a price tag. We leave much happier than when we arrived, and though the taste of the food vanishes from our palettes soon, the experience lingers in our minds for many weeks after.
Authors note:Factual details for this article were sourced from the WOW website, PressDemocrat and&nbs
p;Bite Club Eats.
This article was printed with permission. Rish Sanghvi is a business consultant with over a decade of experience working with biotechnology and technology companies. He is passionate about finding ways that organizations can supplement critical thinking skills with collaboration, creativity and spontaneity. Rish is a founding member of the Bay Area improv troupe The Streetlight People.