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Austrian chef, Catholic nun are spirit behind Trinity Cafe

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Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 12:11 PM
TAMPA -

Alfred Astl frets a lot.

And with good reason: He's the chef at Trinity Café, a restaurant that serves the homeless and working poor in downtown Tampa. He operates on a razor-thin budget, stretching pennies instead of dollars, in order to feed the growing throng of hungry people who come for a free noontime meal Monday through Friday.

"He always thinks he's going to run out, which he never does," confides Sister Maureen Dorr, the 81-year-old Franciscan nun who stopped in to volunteer 10 years ago and never left.

"I tell him not to worry. I happen to know another man who multiplied. He really had a way with loaves and fishes, and so does Alfred."

That's how it is with the Austrian chef with the serious demeanor and the fun-spirited Catholic sister who's a bit of a flirt. They are the yin and yang of Trinity Café. He does the nourishing — creating innovative and well-balanced meals from soup to dessert at about $2 a serving. She does the nurturing — walking among the homeless guests to dispense hugs, give counsel and offer prayers.

"Sister Maureen is an angel on earth. And Chef Alfred is a grizzly with the heart of a teddy bear," says Cindy Davis, program director. "They are the heart and soul of the café. To have them working here together is a real blessing for us and every guest who works through the door."

Neither seeks out attention. But they got it anyway last month.

Sister Maureen was named a local hero by Bank of America, which came with a $5,000 check. Astl, 61, was chosen as a community hero by the Tampa Bay Lightning – an honor that came with a $50,000 award. Both directed their winnings to the café's food account.

Davis says the windfall came at a time when the nonprofit needs it the most.

The café's $455,000 annual budget – which depends on donations and grants – is being challenged by an increase in the number of people it serves. The limit was supposed to be 200 meals a day; that's jumped to about 230. And looming in the future is a $650,000 project that will allow the café to relocate from its current cramped quarters at the Salvation Army to its own permanent building in the V.M. Ybor neighborhood.

When the café eventually moves, it will be open seven days a week. And it will keep that same "dining with dignity" tradition, using volunteers from churches and community organizations to serve patrons at tables covered in white cloths and set with silverware.

That's a touch Astl insists upon.

Before coming to Trinity Café, he spent 35 years in the hotel and food industry, honing his skills as a chef in exclusive settings from Aspen to New York. He worked at a Four Seasons, country clubs, high-end inns and corporations. He owned his own continental restaurant in Tampa with wife, Sandy. He worked for the late George Steinbrenner's Yankee Trader at Bay Harbor Inn. For four years, he served as division chef for five Rusty Pelican restaurants.

But for all the prestige and money that came with his career, Astl got burned out. He missed out on seeing his two sons grow up. Working six or seven days a week, sometimes 18 hours a day, took a toll on his health.

Then he saw the help wanted ad for a chef to work "five days a week, lunch only." He thought it would be a nice break for a little while. That was 10 years ago.

Obviously, there are differences. He doesn't deal in ahi tuna or Kobe beef anymore. He haggles with food proprietors on the cost of odd-shaped chicken breasts. $1.34 a pound? I'll give you 60 cents.

Good quality food is a must, he says, "but I have to get it cheap." And nothing is wasted. Today's leftover braised corn is tomorrow's corn chowder. Every meal starts with salad or soup, a healthy portion of protein, a starch, a vegetable, a dessert and a piece of fruit. That same gourmet style he developed when working in exclusive restaurants is reflected here.

"I approach this the same way I did everything else – I come in and do the best with what I have," Astl says. "Only I know this is the only meal of the day for these guests."

While the chef is working his magic in the kitchen, Sister Maureen is making the rounds in the waiting lines and at the tables. Some of the faces are familiar; once a week, she's at the jail, counseling and ministering to those who ran afoul of the law. She has a special fondness for the men, and often offers herself as a dance partner in the middle of the dining room.

"Stay with God," she whispers to a bearded man, sitting forlornly against the fence while waiting for the café to open. "He won't abandon you. Don't give up. He's here."

For 40 years, Sister Maureen worked in education as a teacher and administrator. She says this is just another extension of what she has done since entering religious life at age 17.

"St. Francis taught us about living out the gospel and serving the poor," she says. "But truth is, I don't minister to them. I minister with them. I firmly believe there are such good people who have had bad opportunities. They show me the way to God as much as I try to show them."

She acknowledges her advanced age, but quickly dismisses any notion of retirement. "Nuns don't retire," she says with a laugh. "We just get recycled. As long as God gives you the health, you keep on moving."

Yes, Astl and Sister Maureen admit, their personalities are different. He's all business, quite serious about the balance between pinching pennies and providing a substantive meal. She's quick to crack jokes and wrap her arms around a lost soul who needs a human's touch. Both agree that those differences don't matter. The bond they share -- their compassion for the poor – trumps everything.

"She is marvelous," Astl says with admiration. "Just marvelous how she connects with everyone."

"And he is a God-centered man," Sister Maureen says. "Though he doesn't think he is, I know it's true."


See this duo in action at Trinity Café on Michelle Bearden's "Keeping the Faith" segment in the 9 a.m. newscast Sunday. mbearden@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7613 COMING TUESDAY: Hometown Hero juggles life as mother, airport worker and National Guardsman.

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