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What goes around comes around: Karma Kitchen provides “gift economy”

Karma Kitchen, a project put on by CharityFocus, gives guests a bill of $0.00. However, guests are encouraged to make whatever contribution possible -- may it be money or a box of cookies -- to keep the Kitchen running. The cycle of giving continues with a staff of volunteers who come in to serve, prepare, wash and help in the kitchen. (Priscilla Wilson)

Walking through the door, a guest to Karma Kitchen is overwhelmed with the smell of Indian spices, doughy naan and sweet mango lassi. The walls are covered in murals painted in deep, rich colors to depict various deities. Other guests sit comfortably in their elaborately-carved chairs as if they are sitting at their own dining room tables. The waiters and chefs are nervous but excited, like a typical first-day employee. But for Karma Kitchen, there is almost always someone new on staff because everyone’s a volunteer.

CharityFocus, a volunteer-run charity organization, opened the Berkeley Karma Kitchen in 2007. Karma Kitchen’s Berkeley location – which is rented out every Sunday by the restaurant Taste of Himalayas – serves as one of three restaurants that make up CharityFocus’ project inspired by a concept called the “gift economy.”

“(Karma Kitchen) is a gift-economy operation, where everyone contributes not for themselves, but for the person after them. Here, it is a chain of generosity,” said Nipun Mehta, one of Karma Kitchen’s coordinators and co-founder of CharityFocus.

With an outrageous bill of $0.00, many people agree that Karma Kitchen is generous. While the “gift economy” encourages many people to keep coming back, both as customers and as volunteers, others wonder why anyone would dish out free food for people who don’t need it.

“It’s important that people don’t come with the essence of a ‘free meal,'” Kahn said. “This isn’t corporate sponsored…. This food is a gift.”

Although bills are $0, and guests are welcome to leave just having had enjoyed the food, people, and energy, Karma Kitchen encourages guests to be generous like the people before them who made their meal possible. Whether it’s a box of cookies or money, any sincere contribution maintains the cycle of giving that Karma Kitchen strives for.

Mehta explained further that Karma Kitchen is a way for people to, as he likes to say, “pay it forward.”

“Naturally, we are a humble experiment,” Meta said. “Such an experiment introduces (people) to a culture of sharing.”

The culture of sharing has attracted some regulars, like Moses Ceaser. Caesar has volunteered at Karma Kitchen once every month for over three years and intends on continuing to do so. For Ceasar, it only seems fair to help others get the Karma experience.

The Karma Kitchen experience is just as special for the volunteers as it is for the guests. The volunteers are given an opportunity to participate in the more spiritual aspect of Karma Kitchen; they get the chance to extend the services of Karma Kitchen by offering their time and energy to act as waiters, dessert chefs, dishwashers and general helpers.

According to Ceasar, it is also the volunteer’s duty to interact with the guests. Having extended conversations, hugging, singing and laughing are all highly encouraged.

    “People know from the beginning that (Karma Kitchen) is an experience that’s different.”

    — Moses Ceasar

Although she is the one serving the guests, Lachmin Singh, who has volunteered at Karma Kitchen many times before, feels like the volunteers and guests have a symbiotic relationship.

“I needed the energy,” Singh said. “It’s a way for me to reach hearts.”

Not all of the volunteers are as well seasoned as Ceasar and Singh.  On Super Bowl Sunday, Ceasar and Singh were two of three who had volunteered before. The other seven workers of the day had no prior experience working in a restaurant, nor a place anything like Karma Kitchen.

According to Vinod, an everyday engineer and first-time volunteer, he had been a guest the week before and had returned this time to help because he liked the Kitchen’s high-energy.

Another first-timer, Meena, wanted to know what it was like to be on the other side of the Kitchen door.

“I was really curious about what this was like, and I’ve always wanted to work at a restaurant,” Meena said.

Guests, too, came from all walks of life and for all different reasons.

Mike Bloxham, a retired Physics professor and a regular, dined at Karma Kitchen with his wife.

“I’m anti-capitalist – that’s why I love Karma Kitchen. My wife is more into the spiritual, non-commercial component,” Mike Bloxham said.

Another tradition that keeps people coming back is the Kindness Table, located just left of the entrance. The Kindness Table serves as a space for guests and volunteers to leave behind anything from scrapbooks about Karma Kitchen, C.D.s of personal music, stacks of the newspaper Positive News and “smile cards” – U.C. Berkeley student Surya Koatha’s favorite item on the table.

“You’ve been tagged,” the “smile card” says on the front alongside a huge smiley face. On the back, the card encouraged its receiver to perform any act of kindness. For Koatha, the “smile cards” embodied the giving concept of Karma Kitchen.

In tune with Super Bowl Sunday, the ten volunteers agreed to have “Super Generosity.” According to Ceasar, the guests were asked to think of 30-second commercials they would create to change the world. They were then asked to write down acts of “super generosity.” Some of the things guests wrote include:

“I would like to give the gift of volunteering so that others can enjoy the meal just as much as I did!”

“Respect your children as individual- don’t put them down.”

“This does not belong to me, it belongs to us all.”

Yet regardless of whether or not there is a theme that day, Ceasar believes Karma Kitchen always provides a unique experience.

“People know from the beginning that this is an experience that’s different,” Ceasar said.

Karma Kitchen is located at Taste of Himalayas Restaurant, 1700 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. The Kitchen is open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Sunday.

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