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Worth Our Weight’s grand finale

Worth Our Weight’s last culinary series dinner will be Oct. 14 from 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at Franchetti’s Wood Fire Kitchen.

An Octoberfest dinner will be prepared by Chef John Franchetti, guest pastry chef Tosha Callahan, WOW chef Robb Ledesma and the apprentices.

Tickets are $85 and available at https://bit.ly/2yvuaT9

Worth Our Weight, the visionary, nonprofit Santa Rosa café and catering enterprise that prepares at-risk youth for work in the food industry, will soon serve its last meal.

A year after the devastating firestorms, WOW Café founder Evelyn Cheatham has concluded that her culinary training bistro is a casualty of the demographic and economic changes wrought by the disaster.

“We’re done,” said Cheatham, at 65 one of the region’s most enduring and oft-honored youth advocates, community leaders and directors of human services nonprofits.

“There’s no more money,” the chef and teacher said at a long table inside the teaching café and catering kitchen near Montgomery Village Shopping Center. “That’s a hard place to be.”

Cheatham founded Worth Our Weight in 2006 to create a pathway to a career for young people — most often, boys — who had aged out of foster care, or struggled with the effects of neglect, family chaos, homelessness, gang involvement and other challenges.

Since the beginning, WOW has been best known for its high-quality and tasty Sunday brunches, prepared and served by culinary trainees coached by Cheatham and a small paid kitchen crew of WOW alumni. Patrons were allowed to decide what they would pay for a meal until the average donation dropped too low to cover operating costs, then prices were set.

There will be no brunch this Sunday because that evening chef and WOW supporter John Franchetti will host a benefit dinner for the program at his restaurant, Franchetti’s Wood Fire Kitchen.

At this point, Cheatham and the Worth Our Weight board are celebrating a good run and working to pay remaining bills before shutting down.

Cheatham said brunch will be served at WOW on Oct. 21 and a few Sundays after that.

“I want to be open so people can say goodbye,” she said.

Friends of Cheatham and her instructional café regard the decision to shut down as bittersweet.

“I’ve always said that Evelyn is magic,” said Marcy Smothers, the Sonoma County author, radio personality and longtime WOW board member.

“With the closing of Worth Our Weight, I’m confident her legacy will live on with the personal and professional successes of her graduates,” Smothers said. “After all she has done for others, she will finally have time for herself.”

Cheatham is committed to continuing a holiday tradition that dates to the 1980s. With a small army of donors and helpers, Cheatham prepares and delivers hundreds of Christmas dinners — bountiful enough to assure there will be leftovers — to people in need. She’ll just have to find another kitchen.

She needs to close the café and catering operation at 1021 Hahman Drive, she said, because since the wildfires a year ago, WOW has seen a steep decline in both diners and apprentices.

For weeks immediately after the October 2017 fires, her food service apprentices joined restaurants and other purveyors throughout the region to cook up a storm and dispense vast amounts of food to evacuees, disaster volunteers, first responders and others.

As the immediate crisis eased, Cheatham said, “people didn’t come back” to her eatery. When the WOW Café reopened for brunch in February, only 18 customers came on the first Sunday.

Worth Our Weight’s grand finale

Worth Our Weight’s last culinary series dinner will be Oct. 14 from 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at Franchetti’s Wood Fire Kitchen.

An Octoberfest dinner will be prepared by Chef John Franchetti, guest pastry chef Tosha Callahan, WOW chef Robb Ledesma and the apprentices.

Tickets are $85 and available at https://bit.ly/2yvuaT9

Typically, the brunch drew 90 to 120 patrons. Cheatham said patronage has improved, but lately she and the WOW crew have felt fortunate to have 60-some people come to eat on a Sunday.

Just as serious has been the decline in the number of youth aged 16 to 24 interested in availing themselves of the hands-on training at WOW.

Cheatham said some potential apprentices left the area following the fires. In addition, she perceives that today fewer young people are interested in committing to the rigorous 12-week training program.

In recent months, Cheatham said, Worth Our Weight has become a kid program that “didn’t have any kids.”

WOW’s mission to help struggling young people build foundations for productive, rewarding lives drew support from many of Cheatham’s fellow Sonoma County chefs, more than a few of them celebrities.

Food Network star Guy Fieri of Santa Rosa featured the WOW Café on his “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” and he’s been an important friend of the program.

An entire cast of chefs has attracted attention and donations to Worth Our Weight by hosting monthly visiting chef dinners and pitching in at the café. Among them are Domenica Catelli, Doug Keane, Duskie Estes, Liza Hinman, Mateo Granados, Mark Dierkhising and Josh Silvers.

Cheatham also counts among her greatest supporters and advocates author and philanthropist Smothers, food business consultant Clark Wolfe and Paradise Ridge Winery co-owner Walter Byck.

Byck said Worth Our Weight “would be hard to duplicate because you would need someone like Evelyn.”

Cheatham figures about 75 young people a year received training through the café and catering program. Certainly not all lifted their lives to new levels, but many did by going on to careers in food service and other professions.

One graduate, Robb Ledesma, cooked for Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates, Woodfour, Pascaline and elsewhere before returning to Worth Our Weight three months ago as executive chef. WOW alumni Michael Rudolph went on to Catelli’s, and Michael Hilstrom to La Toque.

David Efros, a Worth Our Weight volunteer and board member, said Cheatham has been a transformative gift to many young people at serious risk of falling through the cracks.

“I am so proud to know that their lives have been changed, and that they are out there having successful lives, whether they went onto culinary careers, or other life endeavors,” Efros said.

It did Cheatham’s heart good to see trainees become passionate about food and work, but she’s convinced that in a region altered profoundly by the 2017 fires, Worth Our Weight has run its course.

The program will list for sale the house next door to the café, which served as home to apprentices. The café building is owned by the fraternal service organization, the Knights of Columbus.

What will Cheatham do once Worth Our Weight is closed? Her long-term plans will take a while to jell, but in the near future, she said, she will visit her daughter, Erica, in Abu Dhabi.

“And I’m going to sleep in,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 and chris.smith@ pressdemocrat.com.

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