At mid-morning on a recent Thursday, the kitchen was a flurry of activity as the chef and her assistants prepared the luncheon fare for that day.
Ham and cheese sliders, with potato wedges and fried pickles, for the main course, and homemade pudding for dessert.
Yum! And these sliders weren't just ham and cheese slapped on any old bun; they were the loving creation of Bertha Wherry, the lead chef for the day. She put her twist on a standard recipe to make it special.
With Wherry's recipe, assistant cooks Darlene Murphy and Angelique Bryant helped with preparation. They assembled King's Hawaiian buns on a tray, added ham, Swiss cheese, a dash of this and a dash of that, then topped the buns with copious amounts of melted butter. The sandwich tray went into an oven for heating.
Wherry wasn't done, though. She made her own dipping sauce, bringing spoonfuls to a couple of visitors for taste tests. They gave the sauce — and her — a thumbs-up.
Finally, Wherry whipped together the dessert pudding with cookies, candy and cream.
It was all in a day's work at The Kitchen Table, a weekly restaurant serving up good food, good cheer and good conversation at Epiphany United Church of Christ near Benton Park.
Wherry has been with The Kitchen Table from the beginning, since Angie O'Gorman founded it in December of 2013. Her rooomate is Sister Jean Abbott, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, who recently honored O'Gorman with a Generosity of St. Joseph Award for her work with restaurant. The effort fits nicely with the sisters' mission to "love the dear neighbor without distinction."
Wherry, Murphy, Bryant and hostess Stephanie Wynn clearly were enjoying themselves and each other's company. In addition to good eats, the restaurant serves as a safe haven for the women, where they forget about life for a while and support one other.
In fact, the restaurant grew out of a women's support group in which just sitting around a table and talking didn't work for them. So O'Gorman, who ran the group, "asked what can we do to help the women in this community," Wherry said. "A lot of people have big families and know how to cook."
It's a misnomer to declare The Kitchen Table a charity a case, to write a check and to say, "That's nice." It's an actual business, growing far beyond the initial shoe-string budget of $20, barely enough to buy groceries and pay the cook. Now, the women earn $10 an hour, the proposed minimum wage for St. Louis, but they do far more than just earn money. They build self-esteem, learn leadership skills and build strong relationships with each other and their customers, whom "we just love," Murphy said.
They also get to "give back," Wynn said. "That's one of the blessings of this."
Wherry, who described herself as "a troublemaker" years before, credits The Kitchen Table for changing her life for the better.
"It gave me a lot of responsibility," she said. "It taught me how to ... love."
She choked up in sharing that assessment.
"It's done a lot for me," she added. "I wish people could see what we do. It's definitely made an impact on me."
For her part, O'Gorman credits the women of The Kitchen Table for making it their own over the past three and a half years.
"They've had the vision; they've done the work," she stated. "I facilitate to keep things running as smoothly as possible."
The restaurant serves every Thursday from 11:30 a.m. until 1 p.m. About 10 or 12 customers partake in the weekly meals, which run between $8.50 and $10. A few regulars also are volunteers, laundering the women's restaurant clothes, shopping or taking a turn in the kitchen.
"I used to come here for lunch, but after I retired, I wanted to do more," said Linda Paglusch, who helped in the kitchen on a recent Thursday.
Though small, the restaurant has official stamps of approval prominently and proudly displayed next to the kitchen: two ServSafe certificates and a Grade A from the City of St. Louis health department. Just like other restaurant workers, the women wear fishnet caps and food-preparation gloves, keep the stainless steel tables clean and frequently visit the handwashing sink.
"Angie and the women strive to be as professional as possible," Sister Jean said. "They work on their skills, developing their professional skills to the best of the circumstance, then reflect with each other. They work toward high professionalism."
The group starts at 8 a.m. each week with an hour-long business meeting, then go to work. After lunch guests leave, they take their turns enjoying the meal of the day, then plan for the next week.
Sister Jean, who joined the effort after it began, describes herself as just a "worker bee," regularly shopping groceries and helping as needed. But she also provides valuable service: A trauma specialist, she offers stress management every other week.
About six women work in the restaurant, rotating to different jobs on a weekly basis. They take turns as cook, assistant cook, host, server and dish washer. The variance in jobs allows variance in meals, with each woman dishing up a new recipe every week.
"Everybody gets a chance to cook; they all have family recipes," said O'Gorman, who met Sister Jeanne through their mutual work with immigrants and refugees, and the trauma each group has endured.
The women at The Kitchen Table have experienced their share of trauma, as well, but every Thursday, they come together and experience God's love, love for each other and love for their customers — one meal at time.
"I'm hoping we are, one day a week, a place they come and feel safe," O'Gorman said.
The Kitchen Table
What: A restaurant serving good eats and good cheer
Where: Epiphany United Church of Christ, 2911 McNair, St. Louis
When: Open weekly, 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursdays
For information: call (314) 728-9800
Reservations: visit thekitchentablestl.wordpress.com
Conference space: In addition to serving lunch, the restaurant also has space for small lunch meetings.