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Monday, Sep 22, 2014
Michelle Bearden

Father, chef son work side-by-side at Trinity Cafe

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Published:   |   Updated: March 16, 2014 at 01:37 PM

Alfred Astl loves classic rock, especially tunes from the big-hair ’80s era.

His son, John, is into heavy metal and jams on the guitar with his longtime group, the hard-banging quintet “Resurrection.”

Those differences aside, the father and son have found a place where they make beautiful music together:

In the kitchen.

In January, the younger Astl came on board at Trinity Café near downtown Tampa, where his father has worked as the penny-pinching chef since the nonprofit organization began serving meals to the homeless and working poor 13 years ago.

“The old man doesn’t get much time off,” John says, smiling. “He has a certain way of doing things and has pretty high standards. He knows he can trust me.”

Alfred didn’t have much choice but to relinquish some of his duties.

After getting a substantial increase in funding from Hillsborough County, the café added a hearty weekend breakfast service to its Monday-through-Friday luncheon schedule. And as much as the 63-year-old chef feels he should be at the helm of the operation seven days a week, that wasn’t happening.

Bringing John on to handle the weekend shift, and to assist Alfred on Mondays and Fridays, the café’s two busiest days, was a natural fit. He’ll also be available to work when his father takes that rare day off or a short vacation.

“He’s stubborn,” John says of his Austrian-born father. “His commitment and work ethic is something to be admired. But hopefully I can get him to take a little of the load off his shoulders.”

No one is happier about this new development than Trinity’s executive director, Cindy Davis. She jokingly calls the junior Astl, 43, “Alfred the Younger.”

“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” she says. “Watching them work side by a side is a real treat. They are completely in sync. And the menus they’re creating are absolutely amazing.”

With Alfred’s longtime connections to food brokers and Feeding America, a local food bank, he’s able to put together quality, nutritious fare for an average price of $2.44 a meal. But there’s nothing average about the menus.

A recent example: salad with homemade ranch dressing and blue-cheese crumbles; ground chicken stuffed bell peppers with tomato sauce and cheese; rice pilaf; steamed green beans and onions; banana and cinnamon-clove-raisin grits topped with melted marshmallows. Or this one: crab; corn and potato chowder; breaded veal patty with marinara sauce and three-cheese topping; brown rice with vegetables; broccoli with caramelized onion; one orange and one bowl of cookies.

“I do the best with what I have,” Alfred says. “It doesn’t matter if I’m preparing meals for the rich and famous or for people down on their luck. I take the same attitude either way. They will get the best of me.”

His commitment and miracle making in the kitchen caught the attention of the Tampa Bay Lightning two years ago, when he was chosen as a community hero. He donated the $50,000 award he received to Trinity’s food account.

Like his dad, John has spent much of his life in Tampa’s culinary circles, starting with his dad’s continental restaurant, the now-closed Petite Fleur, and stints at places such as Hop’s Bar and Brewery, the Cheesecake Factory and the Capital Grille.

And also like his father, he’s a hard worker. John took specialized training during his off hours and vacation to get his certification to run a home inspection business on the side.

“Growing up in our own home, we didn’t see my dad a whole lot. The restaurant business can be brutal,” he says. “Having my own inspection business gave me an out.”

But when the housing industry started to collapse in Florida, John’s business faltered. He juggled both jobs to make ends meet. Now that the economy is rebounding, he is able to work just part-time at Trinity and continue with his inspections.

Working at a nonprofit and catering to a needy clientele is a big leap for both father and son.

Alfred spent 35 years in the hotel and food industry from Aspen, Colo., to New York before changing gears and moving to Trinity’s nonprofit operation. Besides running Petite Fleur with his wife, Sandy, he had stints in high-end inns, corporations, and hotels, including serving as executive chef for the late George Steinbrenner’s Yankee Trader at Bay Harbor Inn and division chef for five Florida Rusty Pelican restaurants.

But money and prestige aside, the job took a toll on his health and his family life. He missed out on seeing his two sons grow up and spending time with his wife, a nurse. So when he saw the help-wanted ad for a chef to work five days a week, lunch only, he decided the trade-off would be worth it.

Trinity’s gain was his, too: a lot less pay, but a lot less stress. With this job, he and his wife can set aside every Wednesday night for a family meal at home with their grown sons and grandkids. That’s his sacred time.

Alfred admits he thought the Trinity Café would be a short-term gig. Maybe six months, tops. The faith-based nonprofit, which depends on grants, donations and an army of volunteers, struggled in its early years. First it operated out of a church, then the Salvation Army, and finally now, in its own free-standing building in the V.M Ybor neighborhood. With its track record and solid reputation in the community, Trinity is now on more solid footing with a annual budget of $600,000.

Sometime this summer, Alfred will hit a milestone. If he’s stays on track with preparing an average of 270 meals a day, he will serve his millionth meal at Trinity Café. The best part, he says, is that his son is now part of the team that is making a difference in so many lives.

“This place, it teaches you so much. About compassion, about respect, about being grateful for what you have,” Alfred says. “Of all the places I’ve worked, this is the first place where I can drive home feeling I’ve accomplished something worthwhile. That’s a lesson I’m thankful my son is learning, too.”

mbearden@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7613

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