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Serving Time

At a San Francisco restaurant like no other, fine food is prepared and presented strictly by felons

September 17, 2006|J.R. Moehringer | J.R. Moehringer is a senior writer for West and author of "The Tender Bar," recently released in paperback.

Just another day at Delancey Street. A bank robber is broiling the chickens. A jewel thief is refilling the water glasses. A waiter is talking about his time in San Quentin.

Which waiter? Take your pick. They've all come straight from lockup, same as the chefs, bartenders, busboys. That clean-cut kid serving the rib-eye? Assault and battery. That dignified maitre d' holding the menus? Drugs.

Delancey Street might look like every other successful restaurant in this restaurant-obsessed city, but the menu here comes second to the mission: providing felons with a solid first step on the straight-and-narrow.

Mimi Silbert, who started Delancey Street 35 years ago, explains the restaurant with a metaphor--followed by another metaphor, and another. (Silbert has more metaphors than Delancey Street has forks.) It's one big supportive family, she says, countless loud uncles and cousins jammed under one roof, just like the family in which she grew up, back in Mattapan, Mass.

No, it's Ellis Island, she says, and the cons are aliens from a faraway land, called "The American Underclass," who need time--two years at least, but usually four--to prepare for their "immigration" into American society.

No, no, above all, Delancey Street is Amnesty, Silbert's black-eyed mutt, currently snuffling a customer's leg. Years ago Silbert and some Delancey Street cons stole Amnesty from a nearby pound. (Long story, she says laughing.) She loves that dog like a daughter, and sank into a depression recently when the vet gave Amnesty hours to live. But Amnesty proved the vet wrong. Bald, riddled with sores, Amnesty won't give up, and Silbert and the cons won't give up on Amnesty, and that same ethos of tenacity, loyalty and amnesty for everyone cast aside by so-called experts is Delancey Street.

And yet Amnesty is also the reason that Silbert--a petite 64-year-old woman with a distinct New England accent--is gathering her chefs today, this minute, during this lull between lunch and dinner: Preoccupied with Amnesty's health, Silbert has been slack about monitoring the food. As a result, she says, the latkes are "sucky," the marinara is acidic, and don't even freaking mention the onion marmalade.

Silbert, who holds advanced degrees in psychology and criminology, and once studied with Jean-Paul Sartre, can out-curse any con, which comes in handy, because Delancey Street is no Sesame Street.

Twelve hulking chefs, each the size of two full Silberts, gather around her in the spotless kitchen. Her little plum suit, against their massive kitchen whites, looks like a bloodstain on an iceberg. Though their missing teeth and skull tattoos bespeak a history of dealing poorly with criticism, they endure Silbert's scolding with good humor and respect--Delancey Street trademarks.

In fact, it's this attitude that probably keeps people coming back. The food can be exceptional. But the true specialty of the house is hard-boiled politeness, with a side of sincerity, over easy. Every con who comes to Delancey Street, Silbert explains, is ordered to "act nice," until the act becomes real. A trained therapist, Silbert believes minor surface adjustments can generate major inner reform.

The always-be-nice mandate, however, doesn't always apply to Silbert. If she finds fault with a dish--particularly if it's one of her own cherished family recipes--nice takes a holiday. "I'm going to be a little brutal," she warns the assembled staff. "Who's been cooking the potato latkes? I need whoever did it to say you're the one who did it!"

Once upon a time, such a question would have drawn stony silence from the cons, who've spent their lives obeying one primal creed: Never confess. But at Delancey Street, confession is a constant. Confession is a prelude to atonement, forgiveness and personal growth. Doesn't matter if you make a mistake, Silbert tells the cons. What matters is how you deal. "That's the difference between healthy and self-destructive people," she says.

The latke culprit steps forward. Silbert reminds him that latkes must be cooked slowly, to bring out the sweetness of the onion. He nods, hangdog. She asks him to go to the stove and make her a latke, the right way, then moves onto the next item.

After every criticism has been delivered, and digested, Silbert asks the chefs how they're dealing with stress, and it's clear again that this is no ordinary restaurant. She asks them: Are you remembering to laugh? Got to laugh, she urges them, speaking in the baby talk she uses with Amnesty. Laughter is key, she says. Laughter is central to what we're doing at Delancey Street.

Cons tend to take themselves seriously, which precludes change, Silbert says. Given the "enormous pain in their lives," pain suffered and caused, Silbert insists that the cons laugh a lot--at their flaws, their pasts, their uncertain futures--as a way to become calm and happy and open to possibilities.

The men look down at her, smiling, laughing. Then one lumbers away to take Amnesty for a walk.

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