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Photo courtesy of the King’s Kitchen

Now serving soul food

Amy Writing Awards | Our second prize award winner

Jeff Chu won second prize and $5,000 in the 2013 Amy Writing Awards, which recognizes Bible-based articles that appear in secular publications. (Read a selection of this year’s winning articles, which will be posted online through Tuesday, May 13.) For more information about entering this year’s competition, please visit the Amy Writing Awards section of the WORLD website.

The following article originally appeared at Beacon (New York, N.Y.) on Oct. 29, 2013.

Overview: The fried chicken at the King’s Kitchen in Charlotte, North Carolina, is outstanding—crisp outside, juicy within. But what chef and restaurateur Jim Noble really cares about is feeding the hungry and transforming the lives of the homeless—all in the name of Jesus.

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Two skinny men in ill-fitting shirts and jankily knotted ties walk into the foyer of the King’s Kitchen in Charlotte, N.C. They pause, peering nervously through the inner door. The younger man catches a fugitive shirttail, stuffing it back into his khakis. Finally, after nearly a minute, they open the door and walk hesitantly in.

It’s 9:30, late in the breakfast service. The restaurant is nearly empty—only one table of diners. For a couple of minutes, the men wait, shuffling their feet and shifting their weight from leg to leg in an arrhythmic cha-cha.

Finally, a hostess approaches with a smile. “Can I help you?”

“We seen on the news that you was hiring,” the older man says.

“I’m sorry,” she says softly. “We’re not hiring.”

He frowns and drops his head.

“We seen it on the news that you was hiring,” he says again.

“Can we still fill out applications?” the younger man says.

“Sure,” she says.

The older one glances at a white metal colander sitting on the wooden counter.

“Can I take some candy?” he says.

“Sure,” she says.

* * *

Three, five, ten times a day, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the scene replays. They come because they know the King’s Kitchen is different.

Jim Noble, a successful Charlotte chef and restaurateur, had done the white-tablecloth thing, and had been pretty successful at it. But he felt a calling to set a different kind of table. He envisioned an eatery that would serve the Southern-inflected food for which he had become known, but he also wanted to feed souls.

Three years ago, he opened the King’s Kitchen. The restaurant funnels all of its proceeds to Christian ministry. It budgets $150,000 a year to feed the poor. Every Wednesday afternoon, it opens for Bible study, drawing dozens of people, many homeless, who then stay for a hot meal. On Fridays in colder months, Noble packs a van with coffee and food and seeks out the hungry on the streets of impoverished nearby neighborhoods. The restaurant also hosts a training program that combines spiritual counseling, culinary training, and a job. And on Sundays, Noble turns the space into a church; he’s the preacher.

A restaurant as an experimental engine of social change isn’t unique. The King’s Kitchen was loosely inspired by Café Reconcile, a Jesuit-run eatery in New Orleans that doubles as a ministry to at-risk youth. In London, there’s Fifteen, which celebrity chef Jamie Oliver started as a project to train unemployed youth. In Seattle, FareStart serves lunch in a not-for-profit restaurant that doubles as a training center for the disadvantaged; thousands of youth and formerly homeless people have graduated from its kitchens in the past twenty-five years.

What sets the King’s Kitchen apart is Noble’s fervent Pentecostal faith. He says his goal “is to teach people to have a relationship with God.” In conversation, he refers constantly to the Bible. Now, he cites Psalm 107. “Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for mankind,” it says, “for he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things.”

* * *

The King’s Kitchen has a plum spot in Charlotte’s business district, at the intersection of Church and Trade. Within a few minutes’ walk, you’ll find the headquarters of Bank of America, Chiquita, and Duke Energy. By noon on a Friday, the restaurant is chockablock with white-collar workers in business casual.

They come for dishes like biscuits with sausage gravy and fried chicken so perfectly cooked that, on my visit, the battered skin nearly shatters. These classics occasionally get a slight twist—the biscuits, tender and flaky at heart but unusually crisped on the outside, are heart-stoppingly topped by shards of crisp bacon. But the menu—which nods trendily at provenance, citing A.B. Varney country ham and those ubiquitous Anson Mills grits—never veers far from Southern and comforting.

Published at Beacon (New York, N.Y.) on Oct. 29, 2013. Used with permission.

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