The Cookery: Now Serving Second Chances
When eating at The Cookery, a little cafe nestled just north of the 12 South neighborhood, you will inevitably want to give your compliments to the chef. When this happens, get ready for a surprise. Walking into the kitchen you will be greeted by the beaming faces of seven formerly homeless men, each of them now exceptionally well-practiced in the pursuit of flavor.
The Cookery is so much more than meets the taste buds. It is, in fact, a training ground for these men to learn the culinary arts. The Cookery is a place where they can find healing from their painful pasts and regain a sense of dignity and purpose. “These guys feel like they’ve dropped out of life, so this experience is a game changer,” says Brett Swayn, founder and chef of The Cookery. “They know there is a story going on that is bigger than them but includes them. They learn that it’s more subtle than just food; it’s an expression, a chance to meet people at the table through food, and this gives them new life.”
Understanding the evolution and spirit of this remarkable eatery begins with Brett’s own story. Brett came from Australia to pursue a career in music, but through a series of tragic events, found himself stepping off a greyhound in Nashville with nothing but the clothes on his back and nowhere to sleep but a missions facility for the homeless. “It is very difficult to describe what it’s like not to have a home,” says Brett. “You have nowhere to rest. You are not allowed to use most bathrooms. You become mentally and physically exhausted as a homeless person. I felt like I was in a fish bowl.” After many months of homelessness, Brett was offered a position working in a restaurant kitchen. He excelled in this role and quickly rose through the ranks, eventually becoming sous chef for the restaurant’s national chain. Fueled by his robust Christian faith and his newfound compassion for the homeless, Brett began a program to feed the hungry, and the numbers of people served grew into the many hundreds.
Indeed, Brett’s compassion seems boundless. Even I once had the honor of being an unsuspecting beneficiary of his kindness. I first met Brett on a wet winter’s day when my husband and I arrived at The Cookery to find the door locked and no one inside. We turned to walk away just as a voice with a strong Australian accent beckoned us back; “I am so sorry we are closed today,” he said warmly. “Our guys have just been working so hard over the Christmas holiday I thought I’d give them a week off to rest. But I don’t want you to go away empty-handed. Can I bless you with some dessert?” I tried to form words of polite decline, but they didn’t come (no doubt quelled by my persuasive sweet tooth). Brett smiled and went to fetch the treats. A minute later, he returned with two ramekin cups full of a dark, brown goo. He firmly pressed them into our hands and said, “Turn your oven to 425 degrees and throw these in there for twelve minutes. When they’re done, flip them over onto a dish for your own chocolate lava cake.” We went home bewildered and delighted and did as he said. The cake was fantastic.
This gracious gesture represents only a smidgeon of the thoughtfulness that flows through The Cookery and, for Brett, feeding the homeless is only a short term solution. “Poverty is like a black hole,” Brett says, “whatever you give to [people in need] just disappears. Their identity is what is challenged. That is what we need to address.” In 2008, Brett met Terry Kemper, a former caterer, and they put their heads together to develop a plan to equip homeless men with culinary training, giving them new skills and—more importantly—hope. “With the canvas of the culinary, we are dealing with the hurts of the mind… Hope is contagious,” Brett explains. “These guys begin to believe, ‘I can do something useful.’” The seven month program would provide the men with room and board, medical assistance, transportation, clothing, and a monthly stipend. Miraculously, Brett was offered a full year’s salary from a generous friend to realize this vision. As a result of generous support and lots of heart, The Cookery opened July 8, 2013, and celebrated its first graduates March 11, 2014.
Today, The Cookery offers coffee service as well as a full, eclectic menu with down-under flair. Brett and his team take pride in their fresh ingredients, their homemade spice rubs and sauces, and their overall standard of excellence—as well they should. The Cookery’s pulled pork sandwich is the best I’ve had in Nashville, hands down. I also will be returning to the eatery for more of the zesty and delectable fish lettuce wraps and the towering tiramisu.
As fantastically delicious as the food is at The Cookery, the real treat is meeting the men behind the scenes. Guests feel a palpable camaraderie and joy radiating through the kitchen. These gentlemen continued cooking while they graciously shared with me their stories, as well as several tastes of their handiwork. Brandon, the youngest of the bunch, enthusiastically shared that—even if he doesn’t become a chef—he has a newfound confidence and a great set of skills on which he can depend. Jeff recollected that as soon as he heard about the culinary program he showed up, spoke with Brett, and began training that day. “My heart has always been in the kitchen,” Jeff said, “I love how this small program lets us get more technical. I am now jaded by other peoples’ cooking because everything is just so good here.” Most poignant of all, Ray shared how he became homeless after losing his family in a car crash but, through a profound renewal of his faith and teaming up with Brett, Ray now serves as The Cookery’s sous chef and assistant teacher. “I could probably make money elsewhere with skills I have from the past,” Ray said, “but this is who I am now. I am a teacher. I am a chef.”
The story of The Cookery has only just begun. Brett harbors high hopes for the program’s future, including finding more housing to train more men, and eventually reaching out to women, troubled teens, single moms, and so many other groups he longs to help. He dreams about starting similar programs in other cities and developing scholarships to send his staff to culinary school. He would love one day to see a five-star restaurant run entirely by homeless people.
If readers are interested in helping The Cookery team to achieve these goals, they are invited to sponsor men in the program, and—of course—to come and eat! All proceeds from the restaurant go back into funding the culinary program. Funding is key, but it is just as critical for the men to receive the approval from their customers, Brett says. “Their accomplishments give air in the lungs and a belief that they can achieve other things. These guys are not just constructing burgers, they are learning an art. Hands that may have once destroyed things are now making something beautiful.”