Star power

Starfish Cafe teaches job skills to the disadvantaged

There was a man who was walking along a sandy beach where thousands of

starfish had been washed up on the shore. He noticed a boy picking the

starfish one by one and throwing them back into the ocean. The man observed

the boy for a few minutes and then asked what he was doing. The boy replied

that he was returning the starfish to the sea, otherwise they would die.

The man asked how saving a few, when so many were doomed, would make any

difference whatsoever? The boy picked up a starfish and threw it back into

the ocean and said “Made a difference to that one...” -- The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley

Homelessness and poverty are less than glamorous issues. Few candidates will mention them on the stump, community leaders and planners often disregard them, and the general population understands them only through distant and disfiguring terms like ‘hand-outs,’ ‘bums,’ and ‘beggars.’

Homelessness, and to a similar extent poverty, is social taboo. Whether we personally attribute the existence of poverty to a lack of will or a broken system, we harbor our preconceived notions that perhaps only exacerbate the problem and alienate us from the solution.

Fortunately, there are those in Savannah, and communities around the country, who discard the stigmas and throw out a line to those in need. They have made ending homelessness and poverty their lives’ work, and therein comprehend what the rest of us can’t or, for whatever reason, won’t.

They aren’t able to save them all, but they can make a difference to one... one at a time. The Starfish Café, named for Eiseley’s passage above, is such an establishment.

Formerly known as the Bread and Butter Café, the Starfish Café is a partnership between Union Mission, Inc. and Savannah Technical College. They offer a 20-week course of class work and culinary training to people flying far below the radar. Since 2001, they have graduated 300 students.

“We train the homeless, those at risk, those battling addiction,” says Starfish Café Executive Chef and Program Director Rachel Petraglia, “Anyone with barriers to employment is who we train.”

For those unfamiliar with the Café, it began as the brainchild of America’s Second Harvest Food Bank, meant as an outreach extension of Union Mission, Inc. Union Mission aims to end poverty in Savannah, they help accomplish this through providing health services, mail services, food, childcare, counseling and rehabilitation, and shelter to those struggling to get on their feet.

According to Chef Rachel, job and life skills training were a “logical extension to what Union Mission was already doing. We just needed Savannah Tech to give us that seal of approval.”

Savannah Tech has done just that. And with the ever-growing hospitality industry in Savannah, there is a constant demand for trained kitchen staff.

“The first classes all graduated homeless people that previously had no real marketable skills,” says President and CEO of Union Mission, Rev. Micheal Elliott, “and they all got jobs. So we kept doing classes and they kept getting jobs.”

But the Café‘s training is not limited to culinary arts. It includes a broad recipe for success, with special considerations given to the students who struggle even to arrive at the restaurant’s doorstep.

“We take care of everything but the will,” says Chef Rachel. “We provide books, bus passes for transportation, even child care.”

Further, the Starfish Café assists their students with life skills. “It’s not just enough to get them trainable to get a job,’ says Chef Rachel. “We need to teach them life skills.” The Café teaches an array of skills vital to the sustained success of their students: budgeting, stress management, professional appearance, interview skills, resume building, and even self-esteem.

The results have been impressive. Restaurateurs from around the city have called the Café looking for students that excel in food preparation. Some of the many success stories boast employment at fine dining establishments like Elizabeth’s on 37th, Cobblestone Conch House, Garibaldi’s, and the Bonna Bella Yacht Club.

“The students are everywhere now --- from Elizabeth on 37th to managing the Huddle House,” says Elliott. “It is extremely gratifying to run into them when I take my wife out to dinner.”

“We have more restaurants that want our students and our graduates than we have graduating,” exclaims Chef Rachel. Additionally, two of the five full-time staff members at the Café itself have come up through the program, including the Café Manager and the Kitchen Assistant.

Despite many accolades, including awards and recognition for outstanding cuisine, the Starfish Café is always looking for new ways to generate funding.

“While the Café has been through some changes,” explains Elliott, “the constant has been good food, a great showcase for people working themselves out of poverty, and students graduating and getting jobs.”

In 2005, the Café turned to the Today Show in hopes of generating more awareness and support for their endeavors. They were chosen for the “Today Lends a Hand” segment and Al Roker broadcast live all morning from the Starfish.

“We’re proud of what you’re doing here at the Starfish Café,” said Roker, “and thanks for taking care of the folks in Savannah.”

The Café also hosts an annual black-tie gala as their major fundraiser and to bring attention to their mission. This year their success resulted in a demand for a fundraiser of another kind.

“Customers have loved the Starfish Café ever since it opened,” boasts Elliott. “And, yes, all of them ask, ‘When are you going to do a cookbook?!’”

“If we had a dollar for every time patrons asked, ‘When are you going to do a cookbook,’ then the Café would be rolling in more than just the flour-made kind of dough!” says Chef Rachel.

Many of the recipes in the cookbook, entitled Starfish Café: Changing Lives One Recipe at a Time, originated in the Café. It features some of their breakfast and lunchtime favorites, as well as original recipes created by Chef Rachel and the students of the program. The book’s not only a great recipe collection, it’s a testament to the mission and heart of the Starfish Café, Union Mission, and Savannah Tech.

Union Mission Executive Director and author Mike Elliott contributed profiles of eight students. These men and women came from a variety of backgrounds and compromising situations and each one of them emerged from the culinary arts program as a hard-working member of the community with a bright and promising future. They are all survivors, starfish that someone believed in.

The Starfish Café looks to double the number of students coming though the program and expand their services to include training for baking and pastry chefs, catering, and even professional servers. They are hopeful that they will achieve financial balance by continuing to cut costs without sacrificing the quality of the food or the training.

Chef Rachel is thankful for the support of the community, the Today Show, and even Mayor Otis Johnson, a regular customer.

“The best thing people can do for the Café is to come in and eat,” says Chef Rachel. “It gives great gratification to the students.”

Additional support can be given through donations of old cooking magazines, cookbooks, and kitchen equipment. Beyond that, the Starfish Café looks for word-of-mouth to promote their menu, their meals, and their mission.

“Anytime over 300 people climb out of poverty and live productive lives – raising their families, living in their own homes, paying taxes, voting, attending their synagogue, church, or religious congregation – the entire community is better off,” says Elliott.

The Starfish Café is at the corner of East Broad and Gwinnett. They’re open weekdays for lunch and breakfast. The cookbook is available at the Café, at Union Mission’s office on 120 Fahm Street, and through the Café website The cookbook can also be purchased at Barnes and Noble, various local bookstores, and at

Here’s one of over 200 delicious recipes you’ll find in the cookbook. This recipe won BEST DESSERT IN SAVANNAH at the Taste of Savannah in 2002.

Our Famous Bread-and-Butter Pudding


1 loaf sliced white bread, torn into small cubes

1 quart heavy cream

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

½ cup water

1 cup golden raisins

½ cup raisins

3 eggs

1 ½ cups sugar

Crème Anglaise

2/3 cup heavy cream

1/3 cup sugar

2 egg yolks

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

To prepare the pudding, mix the bread, cream, butter, and vanilla in a large mixing bowl. Let stand for 10 minutes. Bring the water to a boil in a saucepan. Pour over the raisins in a medium heatproof bowl. Beat the eggs and sugar at medium-high speed in a missing bowl for 5 minutes or until thick. Add to the bread mixture and stir to mix. Stir in the raisins. Pour into a 9x13-inch baking pan sprayed with nonstick cooking spray. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 to 60 minutes or until the pudding is golden brown and slightly set. Remove from the oven and cool on a wire rack. Chill in the refrigerator for 24 hours before serving.

To prepare the crème anglaise, bring the cream just to a boil in a saucepan over medium heat (this usually takes 3 to 5 minutes). Remove from the heat. Beat the sugar and egg yolks at medium-high speed in a mixing bowl for 3 minutes or until thick. Add the cream gradually, beating constantly at low speed. Return the mixture to the saucepan. Cook over medium heat for 5 to 7 minutes or until the mixture begins to thicken and coat the back of a spoon, stirring constantly. Cool in the refrigerator for 1hour. Stir in the vanilla and return to the refrigerator until ready to serve.

To serve, warm the bread pudding in the oven or microwave. Cut into squares and drizzle with the crème anglaise.

Serves 8 to 10 people.