Where Local and Global Appetites Collide

Tucson altruism: Janos’ Southside

In the true spirit of the holiday season, Chef Janos Wilder has once again teamed up with Randy Spalding, special education teacher at Pueblo High, for “Janos Southside”.

Now in its 9th year, this annual event has become a delicious tradition not only for the students but for those lucky invitees who get to share in the final product.  When Janos discovered how very “special” Randy considered his special ed. kids to be, it didn’t take long for the two to conceive a concept that would not only excite and inspire his students but also give them real life experience in operating a  restaurant. Taking part as hosts, servers, bussers and cashiers, the class of 40 students will transform their classroom into a working restaurant for the day.

What follows is a piece written by Chef Wilder in 2007 on how this annual event has enriched his life. More than any press release could do, his personal essay captures the magic that happens when we reach out to others and give of ourselves…

Holiday Lunch at Janos Southside

Not everyone gets the same gifts. I don’t mean the Lexus wrapped in a bow, tickets to the Final Four, or a gift certificate to Target. This isn’t even about getting three meals a day. I’m talking about the basic gifts we take for granted. You know, like arms and legs that work right, a brain that’s wired correctly, organs that do their job. The basic of basics. The lowest common denominator. Health. This is about kids who don’t go to regular classes, they go to Special Ed. Special as in don’t take algebra, literature or chemistry. This is about kids for whom an accomplishment is learning to ride the bus, how to use the library, or how to do their wash at a laundromat. These aren’t the kids who grow up to be doctors, lawyers, policeman or beauticians. If they’re lucky they get a job greeting at Wal-Mart.

My buddy, Randy Spalding works with these kids. He’s their teacher. Along with Wendy Enriquez, Ruben Fierros and Belle Tellez-Peru he’s created a sanctuary in their classroom at Pueblo High School. It’s a place where the kids can be themselves. In many ways they’re not so different from you and me or the kids down the hall in the computer lab. They care about how they look, what they wear, what’s hip and what’s not. They know the words to rap songs; they’ve got crushes, girlfriends and boyfriends. To each other they’re the same and their classroom is a safe place for them. Here they don’t get picked on by bigger and stronger kids, taken advantage of, ridiculed or have to listen to the disappointment, sadness and anger of parents who are themselves struggling just to make it through life and never bargained on having a child who’s future might seem more hopeless than their own.

Randy and his co-teachers help make their lives actually Special. Special as in teaching them about beauty and appreciation. Special as in caring enough about them to hold them accountable.  Special as in letting them know that they mean something to someone.

I get to visit the classroom on the best day of the year, at least for me. I get to preside over “Janos Southside”. This is the day when their classroom becomes my restaurant.  All the teachers and administrators come to lunch. Coaches bring their teams. The Student Council joins us and so do the cheerleaders. The Principal comes. We get the Superintendent and the President of Board of Education. Congressman Grijalva comes when he’s in town. The media class sets up cameras. This is the real deal.

You should see this staff. My Maitre d’s is wearing a tuxedo. My cooks are dressed in chef’s coats. Everyone in the class has a job. There are waiters in white shirts and bow-ties. We’ve got bussers, cashiers and drink vendors. Everyone works at their level of ability. And they better be ready because we’ll serve 220 people starting right at 10:20 with the first seating. And they are ready. The tables have color coordinated placemats, flowers and decorations the kids have made. This year’s theme is the rainforest so there are green leaves cut from construction paper covering the ceiling. Vines climb poles. It’s a green classroom. Around the outside of the room are bulletin boards filled with pictures from lunches past. There are pictures of the staff, the students and our guests. Pictures of people happy and proud.

The kids have been practicing for this day for weeks. The waiters have colored bands on their wrists coordinated with the placemats on the tables so they know where to go. They also know to serve from the left and clear from the right. The cooks are at the ready behind chafing dishes filled with creamy orzo, ratatouille, rosemary and garlic roasted chicken breasts and pesto Genovese.  Plastic silverware is ready to go, wrapped in paper napkin rings with the Janos Southside logo. The menus are on the tables and there are signs out front greeting our guests. Petey’s there too with a big grin and a hug, checking names off with the reservation list as the guests come in.

Randy and his team have created a team for me. And boy does this team hum. Guests sit and within moments they have their lunch, their drink and soon enough their bill. The tables are turning. Sometimes four times in two hours. They’re turning metaphorically too. Kids who no one expects much from are serving the rest of the school.

The meek have inherited the classroom and turned it into a restaurant.

We charge $5.00 a person for the lunch. All the money stays in the classroom and the kids split the tips.  Some of our guests say they come because it’s the best deal in town and it really is. But that’s not the reason they’re here. They’re here because this is truly a joyous place to be. The enthusiasm of these almost forgotten kids is contagious. Here the kids who didn’t get the gifts everyone else got, give the best gifts of all. They give the gifts of love and joy.  Everyone’s smiling. Everyone’s happy.
Janos Wilder, Dec. 2007

Janos is a James Beard Foundation award winner. You can read more about his restaurants — Janos and J Bar.

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