Interviewsand Articles


Karma Kitchen: An Interview with Richard Whittaker

by Vlad Moskovski, Jul 29, 2011



The world is full of restaurants where people come to sit, to enjoy each other’s company, and of course to eat. Karma Kitchen is a little different. As one of the more local projects of ServiceSpace, Karma Kitchen is a restaurant that offers individuals the possibility to be a server one day, and a guest the next. In this radical place, there is more laughing, more cheer, and more spontaneity than in most restaurants. Here one can come alone and leave feeling a part of a big family and an even bigger ideal – to live a life based on the generosity and service to others. - Vlad Moskovski

Vlad: What is the basic premise behind Karma Kitchen and how is it different from a regular restaurant?
Richard:  Karma Kitchen is an experiment in generosity. On the outside it looks like a regular restaurant, but the atmosphere is different; it’s friendlier, there’s more human connection in the air and this always leads to an elevated and festive atmosphere. No two Sundays are the same. It’s really quite wonderful. Each week the staff people are all volunteers except the cooks who work for the restaurant and get compensated.

Part of the idea is that this is a special experience for the volunteers. As a volunteer, you’re serving the food, but you also making a conscious effort to be more open to a feeling of connecting with the people you’re serving, and anyone in the restaurant, actually. In this attentive openness, you might learn that someone has just come to town, or they’re on their way somewhere. Maybe someone wants to sing a song, or an anniversary has just happened. There’s any number of things that can be revealed, and if something has been discovered about one of the guests that might be shared with the whole restaurant, the waiter might check to see if the guest is willing and alert the maitre d’. So this is an added dimension where all those who are volunteering are alert to hidden possibilities.

Of course, for the volunteer, there’s also the experience of just trying to meet the basic demands of being a good waiter or dishwasher. It just so happens that at the restaurant [Taste of Himalayas], which is where Karma Kitchen is in Berkeley, CA, there’s a man named Juan who is the most extraordinary dishwasher. One time, as a volunteer, I was washing dishes in the back of the restaurant. I was muddling along as best I could wrestling the dirty dishes, spraying them, and loading them into this commercial machine.

There were two of us and sometimes we’d fall behind. Then Juan would sweep in. We’d have to get out of his way because Juan is known as “the Hurricane.” Seemingly throwing dishes in every direction and making a big racket, but never breaking anything, he’d just completely take care of the whole mess. In the time it would take me, or any ordinary person, to do five or six dishes, he would have done fifty. It was really amazing.

Watching Juan showed me how much we miss in this culture by overlooking the maestros who exist in every field of endeavor. We celebrate the maestro who is the conductor of the orchestra, but no one like Juan gets celebrated. I watched Juan wash dishes. I actually watched very carefully, and I saw that he had mastered something to such a degree that it deserved my real feeling of respect and honor.

So Karma Kitchen is a place in which one has all kinds of fresh impressions, like my impression of Juan. I think it’s because the basic premise is novel and unexpected. It’s really an exploration of what happens when you actually try to act from generosity and service.

Vlad: Why do you think it’s so popular? There is always a line out the door.
Richard:  Well, you go there and it’s really fun. It’s always rewarding. I’ve met people and had some astonishing experiences there just as a “customer.” For instance, I met a woman, Susan Schaller, and in the course of conversation she told me a story I could not believe I was hearing. As I listened to this stranger, a woman I’d only just met across the table from me, I was stunned to recognize, as I listened, that her story was very much like the Helen Keller story. That’s my most dramatic experience in meeting someone new there. But people love it because it’s always enlivening in one way or another.

Vlad: So everything is run by volunteers; what do you think motivates people to volunteer their time on a Sunday afternoon to work in a restaurant serving food and washing dishes?
If your wife has been trying to get you to wash dishes for years, and you’ve been resisting and now you’re volunteering to wash dishes, that’s a little strange, isn’t it? [laughs]

It seems that people are drawn to the possibility of giving something instead of just concentrating on getting something. And those who are familiar with that shift from myself and what I want to a focus on giving and sharing with others know the special feeling that can happen. The thing about Karma Kitchen is that it’s like a little laboratory where people are experimenting and trying to put something new into action. I think that’s what draws people. There may be a few who go there just to get a free meal because they don’t have any money. That’s ok, too, because often they end up coming back to volunteer and serve as well. They want to give something back.

Vlad: Is the idea of a pay it forward restaurant spreading? I hear about other locations?
Richard:  Karma Kitchen has been giving rise to copies of itself. I think there’s one in DC and one in Chicago now—and another couple are in the process of being born [as of March 2018, there are 26 around the world].

Service Space projects have had a tendency to spread. Karma Kitchen is one of them, and there are several others. I think there’s a widespread interest in service and a feeling among a lot of young people that there has to be a different model apart from the selfish, capitalistic attitude of “I’m going to get mine and the hell with you.” Many people feel very deeply that something has to change, and that this change has to be in the direction of some kind of service to a greater good.

Service Space projects are like pure versions of this. They’re very much interested in that, about carrying out their experiments without any focus on the bottom line. What will happen when one’s actions are guided by a kind of selfless service, something that’s actually generous?

Vlad: So, they don’t worry about the bottom line?
Richard:  The truth is that there has to be a certain amount of income or such projects would not keep working. It’s not as though money is ignored. But it’s not worried about—and Karma Kitchen has been more than supporting itself. It almost seems as if there’s a law, that if something is given with certain kind of purity—if something is truly generous—it always causes a reaction of gratitude. And when you feel grateful, the impulse is to give back. So the bottom line takes care of itself.

With Karma Kitchen, there’s not going to be a big worry about that. If in fact, people were not paying it forward, they would just close it. I don’t think there’s a big commitment to, “We’ve got to keep this going!” Instead, the attitude is “Let’s try this and see if it works. Let’s see what happens.” I’d say that there’s a willingness to fail—if an experiment doesn’t work out, then there are always other experiments one can try.

Vlad: I ask the question about the bottom line, because I see this transition happening from a more capitalist model, at least around here in the Bay Area, to being more gift economy, and of course it brings up concerns in those that don’t have complete faith in generosity or in this law that you speak of.   
Richard:  Yes. I think you have to verify it. If someone gives something to me, and if it’s a real act of generosity, I know how I feel. I know my response is gratitude; it’s an immediate response. And just as immediately an impulse arises of wanting give back somehow, to reciprocate.

Karma Kitchen is verifiably functioning. The money comes in—although it may fail in the future. The core people in ServiceSpace, while they’re upbeat and full of hopefulness, they haven’t abandoned their critical judgment. They’re all very bright people who look very carefully at things. They'­re going to be realistic, but they’re also capable of making these unusual leaps and trying things out. That’s a big thing, actually trying something instead of just thinking about it.

Vlad: For me, it really comes down to having faith in something that’s very pure; ServiceSpace is very pure around their intentions.
Richard:  Yes. And it seems to me that purity is an ideal. In moments one might experience a pure impulse, and the next moment one may say, “Oh, I see how I could benefit from that myself, and then be drawn back in that direction.” I’m sure we all know moments when something actually pure acts through us, but to think that one can be pure—I’d be suspicious of that. For a lot of ServiceSpace people, Gandhi is a great exemplar. There’s a saying of Gandhi’s that, “if you wait until you are pure before you begin to serve, you will never begin to serve.” You have to start wherever you are and then maybe, by following the path of service, you’ll move in the direction of more purity.


About the Author

Vlad Moskovski has been practicing mindfulness meditation since 2000 and teaching in the Bay Area since 2009. He has taught over 2000 public classes and workshops, having helped thousands discover their full potential. He has taught at Impact Hub, Spirit Rock Meditation Center, Esalen Institute, and Stanford University. He's the author Road to Involution and a yoga teacher. Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.  


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