On Sunday morning, after watching the start of the Chicago Marathon on TV, Mike and I hopped on the Brown Line to Merchandise Mart, for a very important commitment. The train was crowded with people traveling to various points in the race to cheer on their friends, and it certainly wasn’t easy crossing the street to get where we were going!
Nevertheless, we arrived just in time for our scheduled volunteer shift at the Karma Kitchen!
Karma Kitchen is a place that fosters Kindness, Joy, Generosity, and Trust, through the concept of “Pay it Forward”. Visitors to the Karma Kitchen will receive a delicious vegetarian meal, served by volunteers, and gifted to them by those who dined before them. At the end of the meal, diners receive a check for $0.00 and an invitation to continue the circle of generosity by paying it forward for future diners. Guests can anonymously leave any amount, or even pay it forward in other ways such as by signing up to volunteer, helping with dishes, or by going up to the microphone and singing a song.
Karma Kitchen Chicago is held the second Sunday of every month at the beautiful Klay Oven Indian Restaurant, starting at 12pm, with the last seating at 2:45pm.
As volunteers, Mike and I were asked to arrive at 10:30am for an orientation and lunch prior to the restaurant opening. During our orientation, we learned the history & philosophy of the Karma Kitchen in addition to what we’d need to know for our tasks.
The Karma Kitchen Philosophy
While any surplus of funds would go to area charities, Karma Kitchen isn’t about the money. They simply have a goal to self-fund the project. While the benefits that Karma Kitchen provides to society aren’t monetary – they are plentiful. Karma Kitchen represents a gift economy – where services are given without any strings attached. The intent is to increase trust, improve relationships, and build community, which I truly felt in my experience there. “At its core, gift-economy is a shift from consumption to contribution, transaction to trust, scarcity to abundance, and isolation to community.”
The meals served at the Karma Kitchen are delicious Indian cuisine that is 100% vegetarian, with a number of vegan options, as noted on the chalkboard with a (v). And don’t worry – while the rest of the Karma Kitchen staff is volunteers, the chefs are hired professionals.
Meals are served “Thali Style” which means diners get to try a little bit of everything on the menu! The menu last Sunday included the following – (going Clockwise from 12’o clock on the picture below):
- Jeera Aloo (v) – Spicy potatoes
- Hing Dal (v) – a lentil stew
- Raita – a yogurt sauce which helps to cut the heat in the other dishes
- Sabzi Pakora (v) – a fritter of deep fried assorted veggies in chickpea flour (my favorite dish of the day)
- Naan – fresh, soft bread. (Vegans can substitute Roti instead)
- Kheer – a sweet rice pudding dessert (delicious!)
- Vegetable Jalfreezi (v) – a very spicy stew of green peppers & tomatoes (another favorite of mine!)
- Palak Paneer – Spinach with Paneer Cheese
- Vegetable Biryani – a Rice pilaf in the center of the plate
After lunch, it was time to get to work! The group of volunteers was split up into various tasks including Hosts and Servers in the front of the house and Dishwashers (yes, really) and Food Platers in the back of the house. As first-time volunteers, Mike and I were given the opportunity to be Servers so that we could interact with the Customers and get the full Karma Kitchen experience.
I’ve never waitressed before in my life, so I was very nervous! Thankfully the “Thali Style” ordering made it easy – guests “ordered by exclusion” telling us only what they didn’t want – and we brought out everything else. We also each only had 4 tables assigned to us. I actually very much enjoyed waitressing, although it gave me a true respect for restaurant servers that probably have 2 – 3 times the workload I experienced during my shift!
Getting into the Spirit
To truly inspire joy and foster a sense of community, Karma Kitchen integrates it’s message throughout the experience in several other ways.
This was an actual message I found in one of the notebooks:
“I hope you enjoy my gift of kindness, it was truly a pleasure to pass this onto you. Enjoy your meal and continue to spread the love.”
There was also a table at the front full of books, movies, music, and crafts that anyone could browse and take. There were no prices on any items, but just like the food, guests could pay it forward however they wished, perhaps by dropping a contribution in the box, or writing in their name on the volunteer sign up sheet.
Lastly – my favorite part – every month there is a different theme at Karma Kitchen and an activity to go along with the theme. Since October 2nd was Gandhi’s birthday, the October theme centered around one of his most famous quotes: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Tying into that theme, guests and volunteers alike were encouraged to think about how they planned to be the change, and write it down on a piece of paper for displaying.
I truly had a wonderful time at Karma Kitchen, and left feeling more joy and hope for the future. I love the positive message embodied by Karma Kitchen, and I sincerely hope that message spreads!
I’d love to hear from you!
In what ways do you plan to Be the Change?
Bonus Image: At a place as full of heart as Karma Kitchen, even their potatoes show it!