Bringing the Haves and Have-Nots Together for Curry and Compassion

"You feel blessed to be in his presence," said Fiona Ma, speaker pro tem of the California Assembly and a former San Francisco supervisor. Mr. Nepali's desire to help people, she said, "is very contagious."

  ·  The New York Times   ·  Link to Article

As the evening light dimmed, Shrawan Nepali greeted each person who stood in a long line waiting for his food: a woman with her butterscotch-colored cocker spaniel, a poet poring over a mystery book, art students, commuters, a homeless woman with crimson sneakers and men wearing black hoods to guard against the cold and conversation.

At United Nations Plaza, a resting place for homeless men, Mr. Nepali thanked each person for coming. The more than 200 “guests,” as Mr. Nepali called them, were there to dine on his steaming brown rice, pungent Nepalese vegetable curry, nine-bean soup, tomato chutney and poori.

San Francisco has a checkerboard of free food programs serving millions of institutional meals annually. But every Tuesday, Curry Without Worry, a boutique soup kitchen, appears under a gold canopy and offers something different: spicy restaurant-quality dishes — what Mr. Nepali calls “soul-pleasing food” — to both the hungry and the well-fed.

For five years, Mr. Nepali has invited people to his festive dinners, hoping to foster “a merging of communities” between the haves and have-nots. Although Curry Without Worry is not well known to the city’s foodies, it is a favorite of many of the city’s less fortunate.

And the need is growing. The San Francisco Food Bank estimates one in five adults struggles to put food on the table. In the last fiscal year, the San Francisco Food Bank and the Marin Food Bank distributed food to 225,000 people, up from 132,000 the previous year.

“People are so unaware of the hunger in San Francisco,” said Jim Illig, government relations director at Project Open Hand, which provides meals to the elderly and the ill. “We’re an incredibly rich city, and yet people in front of us are going hungry every night.”

Mr. Nepali, 51, was raised in an orphanage in Katmandu. He came to the United States for college, becoming an accountant, a controller and a restaurateur. He put aside part of his profits at Taste of the Himalayas, a Nepalese restaurant in San Francisco, to get Curry Without Worry off the ground. “For a man from Nepal to see hungry people in this beautiful world-class city is difficult to see,” Mr. Nepali said.

He sold the restaurant three years ago and now lives on proceeds from cooking and music lessons, and Nepal tours.

“I realized having a traditional business was not how I wanted to live my life,” he said. “My karma was to serve unfortunate people.” Mr. Nepali built an orphanage in Katmandu and last year started a Curry Without Worry there.

“You feel blessed to be in his presence,” said Fiona Ma, speaker pro tem of the California Assembly and a former San Francisco supervisor. Mr. Nepali’s desire to help people, she said, “is very contagious.” Five years ago, Ms. Ma became Curry Without Worry’s treasurer.

Curry Without Worry serves about 250 people in San Francisco weekly. It buys much of its food from farmers’ markets and food banks; everything is fresh and vegan. Its annual $20,000 budget comes from donations.

Jesse Seaver, an entrepreneur and president of Curry Without Worry, said the nonprofit organization mostly feeds the hungry. “We encourage successful people who wouldn’t eat at a soup kitchen to come,” he said. “It makes people realize that they’re not that different from one another.”

In United Nations Plaza, Kristine Eudey, an artist with short, stylish hair, sat on a curb eating curry. “This is such a rich food city, but only a small segment of San Francisco has access to it,” she said. “This is beautiful. They’re giving food to people, which is what we need.”

An hour after people began scooping curry and rice, the sky turned a pigeon gray and City Hall’s gold dome was bathed in light. The metal curry pot was scraped clean. All that remained were the fragrance of ginger, onion, cumin and coriander, and the people at the end of the line who filled their plates with aromatic rice soaked in what was left of the nine-bean soup.