The best thing about dining at World Peace Cafe, the volunteer-run restaurant at the Kadampa Meditation Center in North Baltimore's Evesham Park, doesn't even happen until you leave. And that's by design.
The food at the vegetarian restaurant is thoughtful and seasonally driven, using local ingredients whenever possible. Eating it is satisfying. But it's only after the meal, once you step outside, that you realize that time spent at the cafe does more than fill your stomach — it adds to your emotional well-being, too.
The cafe is a jumble of tables — some small, some long and designed for communal dining — located in a central room of the Kadampa Meditation Center, which hosts classes, workshops and other programs related to the New Kadampa Tradition-International Kadampa Buddhist Union. The only center of its kind in Maryland, it started in Baltimore in 1995 and moved to its new space, where the cafe is housed, in 2014.
The New Kadampa Tradition's approach to Buddhism is based on the work of Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, a meditation master and Buddhist monk, who believes in applying the core tenets of Buddhist teachings to modern-day living. The cafe is a manifestation of that approach, as it weaves together a practical need — eating — with Buddhist principles related to finding meaning, purpose and peace.
"We talked for a long time about what the cafe's mission statement should be," says Alice Moshenberg, a Baltimore resident and master gardener who tends the center's gardens, helps in the kitchen and sometimes makes the cafe's desserts. "It's about giving people a place to go and be peaceful and have good food, then take that love and experience and go out into the world."
Roland Park resident Susie Michaels is a frequent diner at the World Peace Cafe. She first visited the center last October, after hearing about it from a friend; she now dines there a few times a week, always sitting at the communal table in the middle of the room.
"I was so relieved they put it in because it helps people communicate with each other," she says. "I'm always introducing myself to people. It's all-inclusive and we are always welcoming new people."
Around the edges of the cafe, bookshelves feature Buddhist literature, cards, tiny Buddha statues, incense and other items available for sale. Tucked in an alcove, hoops, craft supplies and a wall of artwork are on display in the "Kids' Corner." At the back of the room, a counter divides the dining room from the kitchen; a chalkboard, high on the wall, advertises hot tea and fair-trade coffee from Zeke's.
Behind that counter is where the magic happens, thanks in large part to Rachel Renz, a peaceful and engaging native Iowan, who has managed the volunteer-staffed kitchen since it opened in August 2014.
"It's a learning kitchen," she says. "I'm always learning back there. Our volunteers who are interested in cooking may come in a little hesitant at first, saying they have no idea what they're doing, but they want to help."
With a welcoming attitude and menus adapted from the center's library of dog-eared vegetarian cookbooks, Renz manages to turn out good food, even without a highly experienced staff.
"It puts them at ease knowing it's a learning environment and we're just here supporting the temple and the activities of the Meditation Center, and that the end goal is not to make a perfect dish.
"But," she says, pausing to laugh, "that is the end goal."
However, Renz is no perfectionist monster of a head chef. She is, as she says, committed to learning and to the principles of the center.
"You can't be the angry, hot-headed cook back there, which is what you're used to seeing in an average kitchen," she says. "We're using the kitchen as a tool. We talk about meditation and the training we're teaching here. A lot of conversation happens in the kitchen. You're comfortable."
For Moshenberg, being in the kitchen with Renz is a great experience. "I love being there and cooking in the kitchen," she says. "Rachel and I work really well together and have a good time."
The output is impressive, too.
"They make really good pad thai and curry. I love their soups," says Michaels. "Rachel is a genius in the kitchen — everybody back there is, really. They never repeat themselves and are always coming up with unique dishes. I'm always excited to see what they come up with next."
Renz's menus are seasonally driven; she frequently shops local farmers markets and buys products from Calvert Farm in Rising Sun. The kitchen team also uses homegrown ingredients as frequently as possible.
Several garden plots, tended by Moshenberg, surround the KMC building. They are planted with herbs, greens and vegetables that end up on the plates of diners in the cafe — and inspire conversation.
"A while ago, I was there helping serve lunch," recalls Moshenberg. " I got to go pick the salad greens and make these salads five minutes after they were pulled out of the ground. Then people wanted to talk about the garden."
The kitchen's laid-back, ingredient-driven approach to menu planning has resulted in some fun collaborations between kitchen and garden.
"We have persimmon trees in the orchard; they came in last fall," says Moshenberg. "I had never seen a persimmon — none of us knew what to do with it. We winged it and made a baked pudding. And it was really good!"
This winter, Moshenberg plans to cover the garden's plants with plastic; she hopes to continue harvesting some products all winter long. "Greens don't mind cold weather," she says. "We serve everything with a salad, and it's great to not have to buy greens from out of state."
Moving forward, she may tinker with the mix of plants and herbs. "This is our first year, so we're working it out to see what we should be growing," she says.
Renz applies that flexible approach to constant change to what happens in the kitchen with a menu that constantly evolves. Cooking classes are likely to be added to the café's schedule, as well, along with events that combine speakers, meditation and meals.
But no matter what is introduced, World Peace Cafe's core focus, and the emotional benefits it offers guests, won't waver.
"The food, of course, is paramount. But I really love the camaraderie I get there — the company and people," says Michaels." Just getting together with people and sharing wonderful food is the highlight of my day. I look forward to it."