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VOL. 39 | NO. 52 | Friday, December 25, 2015

Food for the soul, work for the homeless

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The Cookery's Tiramisu

-- Michelle Morrow

“Jesus is all over this place,” I scribble in my reporter’s notebook as I sit back in a chair inside The Cookery.

And that’s before I witness the glistening shine of a true believer in the deep, brown eyes of Brett Swayn, the owner, operator, instructor, chef and dreamer who helped found this place at 1827 12th Avenue South.

More than food is offered up here. Those who have lost hope come to find it in the 48-year-old Aussie’s frying pans, on the griddle, all the way to the plates of hearty food served.

His cooks – the formerly homeless – have rehabbed as much as the avenue itself in his two years here.

“When we first came here, if you saw a jogger run by out on 12th Avenue, it was about as unusual as seeing a zebra running down the middle of the street in a big city,” he says, rubbing a bit at his fashionable stubble, the sort of facial hair sported by all those celebrity chefs on the Food Network.

Now, as we sit here in the dining room of this rather large missionary outpost and restaurant in a once-rotting section of South Nashville, seven Swayn disciples are doing their best in the kitchen to fill a huge takeout order for 130. Likely a Christmas party of some sort, where the folks would stop ho-ho-ho-ing long enough to savor the wraps and fruit plates.

Going back to the first line of this column, I should note that I almost never commit to paper or Word document the stuff I write down when I am collecting details, the atmosphere for the columns I write.

I might note the smells, the colors, the decorations, or perhaps, even the flavor of the coffee or ice water, the sounds of sirens passing by on the avenue outside, even the types of people who sit at the tables (in this case it looks like the Belmont women’s basketball team – a bevy of lovely, long-legged blondes – is beginning to congregate here.)

Perhaps it’s a mid-afternoon break from finals or perhaps they come seeking a pre-game carb jolt offered up by such dishes as The Cockney –“Cookery baked fries topped with Ole English white gravy” – or The Loaded Fry Guy – “The Cookery baked fries, cheddar cheese, sour cream and chives” – that draws them the few blocks from their campus into what once was a part of town where young and pretty long-legged blondes, or even old guys with long white pony-tails, would have felt uneasy.

The fact is, I started the column with the line above because it was the first thing I jotted down as I waited for Brett to put a catering plate on the cooker back in the kitchen packed with his formerly homeless culinary arts student.

These men have been taught by Brett not only how to construct the fried dishes above, but the platters of savory meats and vegetables and soups that increasingly draw folks from the more trendy Granny White Pike end of 12th South or perhaps from The Gulch or downtown.

Jesus literally is all over the place. Not just in the hearts and minds of the workers and Chef Brett, but physically, with a sculpture on the wall of the Prince of Peace’s head, decked with the crown of thorns, or in the painting of the Crucifixion.

There also are biblical phrases, like the ever-popular John 3:16 on the wall: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish and have eternal life.”

It’s a bit less poetic than the King James Version I learned in Sunday School 55 years ago, but it makes just the right point. Besides, who am I to criticize the writers and editors of the Bible?

“I’m here because of Him,” says Brett, finally taking a break from preparation of the catering job. “He led me here.”

Brett, who praises God, Jesus and/or The Lord regularly during our conversation, says it was no accident he found this place. It just took a few stumbles along life’s long and winding road.

The native of Perth, Australia, was in America pursuing his musical dreams. (There now is an office downstairs from the dining hall where he composes and keeps that dream alive, but always in a genuflecting manner. “I use them to praise Him,” he explains of the array of guitars and recording equipment.)

There’s no need to retrace his entire trip from the Land Down Under to our town, but there was a stop in Austin, Texas, the other music city (with the lower case “m” and “c”). More importantly is the literal “come-to-Jesus” moment he had when down and out in Dallas, The Big D.

“I had a collision with God in Dallas,” he says now, his soft, “put-a-shrimp-on-the-barbee” Aussie accent flavoring his words.

“I had got to a point where I thought I was dying inside. I woke up reading The Bible and spent the next seven months reading it before I asked, ‘What else do you want me to do?’

“He told me to come to Nashville. He didn’t tell me I’d come here and be homeless, though,” Brett adds, shrugging.

He discovered later that he was dispatched to Nashville’s streets and shelters to participate in his own resurrection from self-loathing to Lord-praising.

“I came to Nashville on a Greyhound. The first thing I saw was the LifeWay cross.” That bold piece of Nashville skyline gave him a sense he was following God’s direction, but he wasn’t sure why or how.

Jeffery Hooper prepares mini tiramisu dessert cups for a catered order. 

-- Michelle Morrow

Besides that, “I didn’t know anybody here, so I spent my first night sleeping there at the bus station, my Bible was my pillow and my blanket.

“When I woke up, a homeless man told me that the (Rescue) Mission was really just around the corner. That there was a bed and food there for me.”

He sees it all now as part of a huge plan for him. He went to the mission, where he looked into the eyes of some of the inhabitants.

“I wanted people to get well,” he points out. With the Rescue Mission as home base, he began his next journey, the one that prepared him for running this fine restaurant in a neglected part of town.

“I felt wellness for the first time in my life. So, I let God do whatever it was He sent me here to do.”

Still, he was a man on his own in a big city, living in the Mission, looking for work by day. Or simply hanging out in the downtown library, a refuge for many homeless who are in need of intellectual inspiration. He didn’t realize it, but he was waiting for direction from The Big Boss. He was on a mission from God.

“I next realized, ‘omigosh, I’m homeless,’ and I was praying my heart out: ‘What in the world are you doing?’” he asked both himself and the Almighty.

He again felt the pull of God when he came out of the library one evening to see an apple atop a column. “As soon as I put my hand on the apple, He spoke audibly to me.”

Among the things he heard was “Why do you worry about the little things?”

He had other words with The Boss (God, not Springsteen, in this case), who added: “Jesus says you won’t understand now, you’ll understand later.”

In short order, Brett began his career at West End restaurant Fleming’s, where he worked his way up to sous chef and even was dispatched by the ownership to teach cooking lessons all over the country.

He began to sense there was a plan for him. He just didn’t know for sure where God was leading him. “I had found out Jesus was real, and I just wanted to be with Jesus all the time.”

He didn’t know his destiny until he met a local do-gooder named Terry Kemper. The two of them dreamt up the idea for The Cookery, where formerly homeless men can attend culinary school and work, learning how to prepare and present food.

Among the first things he and Kemper did was find a location, or rather be drawn to a location, on 12th Avenue South, a burnt-out building that once had held an Edgehill neighborhood beauty salon.

A couple decades ago, I visited that salon for a column for the old Nashville Banner newspaper and was told that in the same building African American country music pioneer DeFord Bailey once had a shoeshine business.

Executive Director Brett Swayn encourages his staff as they work in the kitchen. 

-- Michelle Morrow

I never confirmed that, and it is likely simple folklore, although this neighborhood was Bailey’s lifelong home, and the great harmonica player did shine shoes someplace near here after he was dismissed by the Opry. So why not this property?

Five years ago, Brett and Terry stood by the burnt-out shell in the middle of what then was still a strip of Nashville where most folks would only go if they had completely non-Biblical intentions.

The two do-gooders knew they had found their destination.

A few blocks south, closer to Sevier Park, 12th Avenue South’s own resurrection was just beginning to pick up momentum.

The hipster “12South” urban pioneers have yet to try to reclaim this neighborhood closer to Wedgewood. That will happen soon enough, perhaps simply because The Cookery took a chance on this neighborhood and some of its “residents.”

“When we saw people running down the street back then, they weren’t joggers, if you know what I mean,” Brett says, recalling how it was when they began the reclamation of the building five years ago.

It’s still pretty rugged nearby, but where gangs of thugs used to hang out in the parking lot here and – in front of a nearby bar, tobacco/beer store and a filling station – there now are tables for dining alfresco.

That lock-your-car-doors feeling still existed here when the formerly gutted-by-fire building began its three-year transformation.

There now is a professional kitchen, inside and outside dining areas, another storefront “where we hold church sometimes,” according to Brett.

There’s also a wide-open lower level which is used for gatherings and such treats as the “Dinner and a Movie” series. (The guys in culinary school pick the movie and come up with a menu to fit it.)

Some of The Cookery’s fans have doubtless warmed to this mission while joining the guys on movie night. From those people comes more help for the kitchen mission.

Seven at a time, the men come through The Cookery Culinary School and at night they stay in one of two residences in Woodbine, where they relearn to relish the comforts of civilization away from the streets, to practice the hygiene habits that had not been available to them or that they ignored when they were out on their own, complete unknowns.

Two of the first culinary students were a guy who had been on crack for more than a dozen years and another fellow who had spent nearly that same amount of time drinking his life away. Hope – in the form of this restaurant – rose from the ashes of the old hair salon.

The Cookery staff (L-R) Jeffery Hooper, Jordan Miles, Travis Klein, Brett Swayn, Devin Adams, Ray Arnett and Scott Drumm.

Cleaning up and working here “was a way for them to earn their daily bread,” Brett says, adding the houses in Woodbine “are not like halfway houses or anything. It (The Cookery program) is not about rescue, it’s about resurrection.”

His original partner in this venture, Kemper – who had been running a successful restaurant and catering business, and who Brett credits for so much of what’s happening now, what will happen in the future – died of pancreatic cancer in March 2013,

Brett looked up to his new BFF, The Spirit in the Sky, and asked if there was anything that could be done to allow Terry to live until the restaurant opened.

“I said ‘Why is it so hard, Lord? If there is sin I have done that’s keeping us from opening, let’s deal with that sin and get on with it.”

She did live long enough to see the restaurant opened. Her memory is nurtured, accomplishments celebrated by Brett and by the men who benefit from Terry’s vision.

“Sometimes the boys share their communion wafers with Terry,” Brett says. He points to bread crumbs in the lower corners of the frame of a large portrait of Terry that allows her to symbolically look out on the action in the kitchen and on the catering table and the culinary school with a heart and a mission.

In the two years since The Cookery opened, 21 men have come through the culinary program. Eleven of them have used this opportunity to slay their demons, erase the nightmares that kept them away from society, and move from Chef Brett’s school to the real world.

“I wish I could say all 21 of them moved on to have some success,” adds Brett.

Yes, some returned to the streets, and that bothers him. But the successes continue to lift him.

“We’re rocket fuel, they come to us and learn how to heal their souls and get work,” he says. “They know they are part of a story of hope.”

Ray Arnett, 52, sous chef and kitchen manager, is one who not only made it through culinary school, he is now employed at The Cookery full-time. An accomplished electrician, he began using drugs when he was 10, graduated to time in juvenile detention on a robbery charge, later had nightmares wondering why he wasn’t in the car when his wife and grown children were killed in a crash.

”I hit rock bottom,” he says, tears in his eyes while detailing his hard-scrabble life. “I couldn’t drink enough whiskey, do enough dope… The sun would rise and I’d cuss God.”

His is a complex, emotional tale worth detailing some other day, so I’ll skip from the darkness to the happy ending. He encountered Brett and challenged him to talk about “his God.”

“I learned about prayer while I was washing dishes,” reborn true believer Ray explains.

As I sit, nursing a cold glass of water, in the dining room, one of the regulars who eats here, helping in the reclamation of building and souls while enjoying Brett’s delicious concoctions, comes up to the table.

Rebecca Armstrong was introduced to Brett by her son, Jay, who met him while on his food-delivery route.

“I’d never met anybody like him before,” Jay Armstrong says.

“This man is truly a man of God,” says Rebecca, after paying for lunch for herself and her son. “I have that much faith in him. He always listens, he’s so soft-spoken. He’s made a mark in our life,” she says, adding that Brett gives purpose to not only the men who work their way up from the streets here but to everyone he meets, including the steadily increasing stream of customers who have discovered just how good the food is.

“He’s here for a reason,” she says. “I’ve never met a guy who is closer to God.”

As I prepare to depart – allowing Brett and “the boys” to get the food for 130 ready for pickup and plan out that night’s Dinner and a Movie – I again scrawl the thought that has stayed with me throughout my Cookery tour: “Jesus is all over the place.”

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