Editor’s note: Our own Chef John Park of Toast Kitchen Bakery & Bar presided over this special dinner for homeless people. Read what the OC Register has to say!
By Theresa Walker
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Monday, Dec. 17, 2018 – On a night designed to make her feel like royalty, Donna Sallee compared herself to something far less glamorous: a human piece of trash.
Those were the words used by the 62-year-old recovering meth addict to describe the self-loathing caused by her personal failings and the disparaging treatment she has endured over nearly two decades of being on the streets.
The disdain made her wonder where she fits in.
The answer came back from many voices: “Right here!”
Sallee heard those words from the other homeless people she lives with at the Courtyard shelter in the Santa Ana Civic Center. They were the 20 guests of honor Tuesday night at a special gathering called Kings Table.
And just as vigorously, Sallee was embraced by the hosts of the evening, employees of the ad agency Amusement Park, whose offices in the old city hall on Main Street aren’t far from the shelter.
That message of acceptance spread to all the homeless women and men treated to a four-course dinner made by executive chef John Park of Toast Kitchen Bakery & Bar in Costa Mesa.
Their servers were Amusement Park staff. Other employees sat among their guests for the meal, including Amusement Park Chief Executive Officer Mike Weisman, who ended the night with a standing invitation.
“These doors are always, always open to each one of you,” he said. “You’re very precious.”
Kings Table is an outreach started by Santa Ana native Lambert Lo, a surf instructor to celebrities and billionaires around the world, who dedicates much of his free time as an advocate for the poor and downtrodden.
Lo, 43, has put on a Kings Table gathering monthly the past three years, finding hosts at various venues in Santa Ana. In February, he took the concept to Switzerland, where refugees who have fled violence in the Middle East were the honored guests.
Last month, a dinner was held at a church in Bangkok’s red light district for women forced from a young age into the sex trade.
“We hope to continue to have prostitutes as our guests but also invite refugees, those living in the nearby slums and on the streets — our neighbors,” Kaija Leo, a friend of Lo’s who does church work in Bangkok, wrote in an email.
To Lo, as he intends it to be for all who attend, Kings Table is more than a meal. It’s a night of belonging and friendship.
“It’s a different experience from most homeless meals,” said Lo, who likes to call himself Lamberto for his roots in the Spanish- speaking neighborhoods of Santa Ana. “Dignit y, interaction, story and hope are the top priorities.”
The guests and the hosts, as was the case with the Amusement Park staff, share the meal and personal stories as the evening unfolds. On Tuesday night, Park created appetizers that included bacon-wrapped dates, a first course with white bean toast and crispy brussels sprouts, a second course with sous vide short rib and two desserts.
The setting resembled a fancy banquet with table linens, soft candlelight, seasonal decorations and live music inside the spacious staff lounge at Amusement Park.
Employees call the area where they go to relax the “love room” for a sign on the back wall that spells out L-O-V-E in small light bulbs. The nickname fit perfectly with the mood and meaning of Kings Table.
“Did you guys taste the love in the food tonight?” Lo asked as he gave a shout-out to Park, who arranged the food on the plates in an area next to the employee lounge.
That love has crossed borders.
Stéphane Rapin runs a golf course in the Swiss town of Payerne. He has family in Santa Ana and, with Lo’s assistance, presented a Kings Table. It has become a monthly event. A friend in England has started one at her home, inviting refugees.
Rapin tells the story of a Syrian man whose restaurant in Aleppo was destroyed by ISIS. The man saw his sons beheaded and escaped with his daughter. He enjoyed the Kings Table meal so much he asked to come cook for the next one. He’s been back twice.
“We realized he was alive again when he was preparing food and serving people,” Rapin said in an email. “So we are now trying to find a way to give him a tool again, to give him a restaurant in Switzerland.”
During what Lo calls his favorite part of Kings Table, he invites people to come up and speak whatever is on their minds, as Sallee and others did in talking about the way society often perceives homeless people. It’s a testimonial of sorts.
Kimberly Sandoval, 50, said she’s spent the past two months at the Courtyard, after years of living “right out there,” pointing in the vicinity of the Civic Center.
Her rough life included drug abuse, giving up her son and being disowned by her family. But she said she is finding another family among the homeless people at the Courtyard and the advocates who encourage them to change their lives.
“Lambert was right when he was saying it’s not us and them,” Sandoval said. “It’s a we — a we.”
One man, Clarence Williams, 52, got an interview with Park for the next day, to perhaps wash dishes at Toast. He ended the evening on a note of excitement: “I hope I get this job!”
Prayer is also a part of what gets shared, along with joy and tears. More often than not, Lo is the first to cry.
His voice wavered as he told everyone that God watches out for them.
“He looks at you right now, and he sees your heart of gold. You are all kings.”
Guests of Kings Table, a once-a-month multicourse meal served to homeless people, gather for a group hug during Tuesday’s dinner at the ad agency Amusement Park in Santa Ana.
Servers at Tuesday’s Kings Table dinner were staff of the ad agency Amusement Park, which hosted the event. Other employees sat among their guests for the meal. Above, Zach Weisman serves some of the guests.