10.23.11

Bon Jovi Rocks Hunger

Jon Bon Jovi is stepping off the concert stage to take on a new challenge: hunger. Laura Colarusso reports on his innovative new community kitchen in New Jersey.

Stepping into Jon Bon Jovi’s new restaurant, Soul Kitchen, in Red Bank, N.J., is a lot like stepping into a well-appointed Manhattan eatery. There’s a floor-to-ceiling mahogany-colored pantry that adorns the back wall, much like the ones in Daniel Boulud’s downtown brasserie DBGB. Modern glass chandeliers hang from the ceiling. Bags of pasta, bowls of lemons, and five-gallon drums of organic olive oil are artfully laid out to entice diners. The roughly 250-square-foot kitchen boasts some of the best equipment in the business.

But this restaurant isn’t your typical celebrity-driven hangout. The menu—with its cornmeal-crusted catfish, rainbow beet salad, and barbequed salmon fillet—has options that most gourmands would at least try, if not applaud. Yet, there are no prices next to the dishes. Just a note at the bottom saying patrons can either leave a cash donation or volunteer their time in exchange for a meal.

“What this restaurant is truly meant to do is empower,” says Bon Jovi. “You don’t come in here with a sense of entitlement. You come in here and volunteer because we need your help.”

Officially opened last Wednesday, the restaurant is housed in a refurbished car-repair shop. Three glass-paned garage doors let in enough sun to naturally light the space, despite a massive downpour and heavy cloud cover. Bon Jovi, who repeatedly refers to it as a “community kitchen,” is sitting at one of the dozen tables in jeans and a gray blazer, eager to talk about the devastating effects of hunger on families.

“One in six people in America are suffering at night and going to bed hungry, and one in five families live at or below the poverty line,” he says, putting his head in his hands to rub his temples as he recounts the statistics. “Twenty-four thousand dollars for a family of four? It’s just mind-blowing.”

At the end of 2008, the nation braced itself for economic decline. As millions went on the unemployment rolls, the rock star and his family saw an opportunity to help. Losing a job often translates into cutting back the food budget, which makes it harder to put well-balanced meals on the table. So, in October 2009, Bon Jovi’s charitable foundation, which had already built hundreds of homes in Philadelphia, began serving food one night a week in the gym of a local church as a test run.

The pilot program taught the foundation a couple of valuable lessons. First, it proved the model was viable. The paying customers were able to cover the costs for both themselves and about 60 percent of those in need. Second, vocabulary is important. By giving the less fortunate “gift certificates” instead of “vouchers,” the restaurant could instill a sense of pride instead of perpetuating the stigma of a handout.

On the day I visit, the small space is overrun with reporters carrying notepads and cameramen trying to get the perfect shot of Bon Jovi standing behind the sink. (He admits he can’t cook but does the dishes.) He is quite cognizant that the primary (probably only) reason that most of the press—at least the national press—is here covering his restaurant opening is because he’s famous. He’s hoping the attention will bring customers, and later, an expansion to other locations. The need, as Bon Jovi sees it, is only going to grow.

Kitchen staff, wearing black T-shirts that read “Hope is Delicious” and “Happy are the Hands that Feed,” are scurrying around him and the lighting crews, trying to prep for the opening. The singer’s dad, John Bongiovi, stopped by to lend a hand in the kitchen. (To a certain extent, it’s a family operation. His wife often acts as hostess and his daughter as waitress.)

“What this restaurant is truly meant to do is empower. You don’t come in here with a sense of entitlement. You come in here and volunteer because we need your help.”

It’s taken two years to get to this point. And, it’s clear that a great deal of thought has gone into the details. The restaurant will start out small, serving dinner Thursday through Saturday and brunch on Sunday. The plan is to wait to expand until they build up a customer base. The food will come from nearby farms and the organic garden out front, which is already sprouting carrots, figs, cabbage, broccoli, and a variety of herbs. As a community restaurant, the Soul Kitchen will support local farms. The hope is that reconnecting the production and consumption of food will inspire patrons to eat more healthfully.

It remains to be seen if the public will accept a restaurant with no prices on the menu—and if they’ll throw their support fully behind it. But the whole experiment is best summed up by a quote that’s been painted on the wall: “A place is ready for you if you are hungry or if you hunger to make a difference in your community, for we believe that a healthy meal can feed the soul.”