Ray Trono might have graduated from one of the most prestigious culinary schools in the country, but he long ago ditched his chef whites for a tie-dye shirt.
That’s his official chef uniform at St. David’s Episcopal Church, where as director of hospitality ministries he oversees the church’s catering operations, which includes an in-house eatery called Cafe Divine.
Trono, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New York, had been the sous chef at the Headliner’s Club in Austin, a private club notorious for its formality, for 10 years when he decided that he was ready to get out of traditional fine dining.
"I could do just about everything there without having to think about it. It wasn’t a situation that challenged me," he says. After a short stint working for US Foodservice as a salesman right around the same time that he started attending St. David’s as a parishioner, the church hired him to expand the church’s food ministry.
He took over the small kitchen in the church and started making breakfast for parishioners on Sunday mornings and dinner on Tuesdays and Sundays. Within a year, he added a Thursday lunch that is open to the public. That was 12 years ago and Cafe Divine is still going strong.
Beyond the weekly commitments, which also include a Tuesday lunch for the Rotary Club of Austin, Trono and his small team cater everything from galas and wedding receptions to nonprofit meetings and happy hours that are hosted in the church’s many event spaces.
During South by Southwest, when the church hosts both interactive panels and music showcases for artists such as Arlo Guthrie and Kat Edmonson, Cafe Divine serves homemade baked goods, sandwiches and beer. (As an Episcopal church, St. David’s is more relaxed about alcohol than some other religious institutions, and for events such as SXSW, they obtain a temporary permit from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission so they can set up a cash bar for guests.)
"A downtown church has to fit into the flow" of whatever is happening downtown, says director of special events Lisa Kay Pfannenstiel, whose job it is to fill up the church during the time when parishioners aren’t using it.
It would be "almost sinful," she says, for the church not to open its doors for nonprofits and other groups who need a space for an event or, in the case of the Thursday lunches, people who are looking for an affordable, from-scratch meal in a place that feels like a community center.
Just as St. David’s is more than a church, Cafe Divine is anything but a traditional restaurant. Trono is one of three full-time kitchen staffers. Everyone else is either a volunteer or a student worker who is participating in the Go Project, an Austin Independent School District program for students with special needs ages 19 to 22 to help them transition into adult life.
"Ray has to juggle so many different types of people," says Pfannenstiel. "He’s a brilliant cook, but he manages the people and the space even better."
For the 10 Go Project students, getting real-life work experience in a kitchen like Trono’s is invaluable in helping them find other jobs in the industry, says instructor Paula Murphy. The students, who all had to get their food handlers permit, work four days a week.
"They get to learn to follow directions and be part of a team," she says. "But it’s such a gentle, kind place to get used to a work environment."
At the beginning of the year (the students are on the AISD calendar), Trono gives them simple tasks, such as slicing mushrooms. In the following weeks, the students master the basic skills of choosing the right knife and cutting board and using the right technique to wash, cut, label and store the mushrooms.
After they have mastered one station, the students can progress to other kitchen tasks, and by the end of the school year, Trono says that some of the students can prepare from scratch an entire dish, in a portion large enough to serve the crowd of about 100 that shows up every Thursday. Several former Go Project students have gone on to get jobs in restaurants around Austin, including the Hilton Austin and Chili’s.
Trono is the first to say that he couldn’t do what he does without a cadre of volunteers, many of whom have shown up week after week for years.
Among them is Roseanne Duncan-Charnley, who says that cooking at the church fills a void that she’s had since her husband died about six years ago. "I get to come every week and have an extraordinary experience," she says. "Chef Ray empowers people, even when he’s correcting them," she says. If someone does something like leave the eggs out of the pie filling, he makes it right without hurting their feelings.
Fellow volunteer Paul Brick says that Cafe Divine also fills an intensely personal need to serve others through food. "If it weren’t for Cafe Divine, I’d probably have my own restaurant," he says, with a hint of acknowledgement in his voice that it’s probably best that he doesn’t run his own place.
A handful of volunteers have gone on to culinary school, including Brick’s son Adam and sous chef Anna Quattrochi, who is now one of the three kitchen staffers.
Most of the regulars who come for lunch work in nearby office buildings downtown. Gina Picasso, a legal assistant who works about six blocks away, says she’s been coming to Cafe Divine for almost a year now. It’s good food for the right price — $8 a person, which includes desserts, a drink and coffee — that is served quickly. In recent weeks, Trono has served everything from smoked salmon and jalapeño-breaded, deep-fried chicken to a seafood-stuffed chicken and Mardi Gras pasta. He estimates that 80 to 90 percent of the dishes are made entirely in-house.
But Picasso says that what she really enjoys is the atmosphere. "I don’t know if it’s because it’s at a church, but everyone is in such a nice, pleasant mood," she says. "Everyone seems happy to be there."
The mood of the staff seems to rub off on the guests, who eat at large round tables. "It’s not unusual for someone to walk up to table and say, ‘Hey, can I join you?’ Every time I’ve gone, I’ve met someone new."