Say you went to a restaurant, ate a tasty meal, and afterward you got from your beaming, utterly charming young server not a bill but a blank, empty envelope, and you were told:
Pay what you wish.
That's what happens at Berkeley's Namaste Restaurant on Saturday nights, when volunteers from the Santa Clara-based nonprofit Charity Focus energetically greet, seat, and serve guests the restaurant's regular cook prepares the food and wash dishes as part of a project called Karma Kitchen. The idea of "gift-economy" dining is being tried at venues all over the world, from Seattle's TerraBite to the Australian chain Lentil as Anything. Most were inspired by the volunteer-staffed Seva Cafe in Ahmedabad, India. In pay-it-forward fashion, you are told upon entering that some previous patron, a stranger, has already paid for your meal. Likewise, whatever you put into your envelope covers the cost of some future stranger's.
"It's an experiment in community, generosity, and kindness," explains Rish Sanghvi, a UC Berkeley alum and consultant, tonight's maître d'. Working without being paid "changes something," Sanghvi says, with the bright, join-us smile of the ardent. "It means people are here because they want to be here. In a real way, it's a gift."
From the kitchen comes a clamor as dishwashers burst into song. At 9 p.m., the place is packed. Laughter and dish-clatter and young voices press in, thick, as servers dart bearing thali, Indian-style compartmentalized metal trays. We can scarcely hear ourselves think, much less talk. But we are ashamed for wishing that we could, as if we'd ridiculed the ribbons on a birthday present. Take your bourgeois demand for serene silence elsewhere, you plutocratic neocon. Recast the din not as earsplitting but as ... excitement. For the concept of changing the world. Because that's the spirit of this age in which nonprofits are the new punk rock. And kindness is a hot fad like, say, hang-gliding or Pong.
Mean people suck.
A bulletin board, labeled "Acts of Kindness," invites suggestions. "Plant a tree," reads one slip pinned to the cork. "Pay the meter for someone else's car," reads another. Atop each table, cardboard cutout squares fitted with spinnable arrows are part of the "Spinspiration" game: Diners are asked to spin the arrows and answer questions printed on nearby cards corresponding to the numbers at which they point. For example: "If you could prepare your favorite recipe for a homeless person, what would it be and why?" And: "If you had one superpower for the betterment of humanity, how would you use it?"
Our server arrives, bringing a thinnish mango lassi and a housemade pomegranate-lemon sparkler that sets off bursts of glorious sun-infused fruit flavor in the mouth, like timed charges. She offers a choice of two types of naan (a soft, flat bread): plain or buttered white or plain or buttered whole wheat. She is a medical student, a pediatrician-to-be, doing a rotation at Children's Hospital.
Framed photographs of Nepal line lemon-yellow walls: women in native costumes, the old caravan town of Pokhara, snowcapped Fishtail Mountain. They evoke the homeland that Namaste's co-owner/manager Jagannath Gautam left four years ago. A Hindu and a former social worker who left behind a computer business, Gautam greets every visitor with the reverent palms-together gesture for which he named the restaurant when opening it with partners Rajen Thapa and Bishnu Lamichhane in February.
"In Nepal," Gautam told us the first time we ate there, "when a guest comes to our home, we feel like a god has come to our home. When a customer comes to the restaurant, I feel like that too."
Starting in March, the partners agreed to let Charity Focus use the space on Saturday nights. Throughout the rest of the week, this is a cozy, friendly, for-profit establishment serving Nepalese and Indian dishes both with and without meat. Guests are allowed to choose whether they want their selections mild, medium-hot, or hot and are not mocked for choosing mild. Namaste's dal makhani, a Punjabi highway-diner favorite comprising kidney beans and tiny jet-black lentils in a salty tomato-cream sauce, looks like the sort of high-protein pick-me-up you'd wolf down fast, like chili. But it's best savored slowly, almost bean by bean, as kidneys soaked and stewed to a perfect doneness explode like bank dye packs between the teeth. Malai kofta tender fried golfball-sized potato/cashew/ paneer-cheese spheres rear up from a thick, sweet, cumin-spiked sauce that looks like dissolved brick but feels like velvet and makes you wish you had ordered more of this, lots more, to be scooped mouthward in pillowy naan. Housemade mango kulfi, milk boiled down and down again to a thick paste, mixed with pulp and sugar and then frozen in a mold, rivals gelato in its dense intensity. Aha, the diner exults: So this is what fruit is for.
On Karma Kitchen Saturdays, everyone gets the same meal, though the menu changes weekly. Tonight it's pot-sticker-like Nepalese momo, spinach-cheese and vegetable curries, cucumber-yogurt raita, and dal soup whose plump, assertively perfect yellow lentils prove yet again that the cooking staff here has truly mastered the legume. A choice of desserts includes rich vegan chocolate cake and almond-milk kir, rice pudding whose cardamom perfume belies its lightness.
When the envelope arrives, we argue: not over what to pay, but over what we suspect others do. I'm guessing lots of guests sneak off without paying, just because they can. Tuffy says no, that most probably pay what this meal would normally cost, if not more. It's the guilt factor, Tuffy says, eyeing the printed cards our doctor-server has given us, which read: "SMILE. You've just been tagged! Experiments in Anonymous Kindness is the name of the game, and now you're it." She has also left a receipt that reads: "Dinner for 2 served this evening by FRIENDS! Your Bill Total: $0.00."
In principle, that is. Bon appetit, total-stranger-to-come.
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