Several times a year, a large lobby within the Reno Buddhist center in Midtown transforms for a special dining experience. The dinners are set up so that people are able to pay what they can afford, but even if guests have nothing they aren't turned away. Our Reno Public Radio reporter, Marcus Lavergne, attended the Center’s Cuban night to learn what the unique feasts are all about.
Upbeat Cuban music sets the mood as plates of black beans, rice, chicken and fried bananas travel from person to person inside the Moon Rabbit Café, the Buddhist Center’s bi-monthly eatery.
Within the buzzing dining hall, people are encouraged to embrace an ancient story – one that involves a kind rabbit who was prepared to sacrifice itself for a starving hunter.
“At the very last minute, Indra the sky god reached down and grabbed the rabbit from the flames and he put his image in the moon, so if you look at the full moon you can see a profile of the rabbit in there and it’s all about compassionate giving.”
That was Shelley Fisher a priest and co-leader of the center. She and her husband Matthew started the dinners while looking for a way to help spread the Buddhist teachings through food.
The dinners bring in people from all walks of life, but there’s a catch. Those who attend may end up sitting directly across from or next to total strangers. At the Café, that’s part of the spirit of their pay-what-you-can dinners.
“We were trying to think of a way to bring people together and food is a great way to do that and also opening up to other chefs in the community and up and coming chefs, people that might be in showcasing their skills, we’re giving people in the community an opportunity to do that.”
One of those chefs is Head Chef Jay Modha who cooks for the Mediterranean restaurant Shwarmageddon in Reno.
Modha said the first time he took on the lead cook role, he quickly learned managing the hustle and bustle of a new kitchen was more than challenging.
“It's consistently nerve-wracking. You have to focus on keeping volunteers that want to help but might not necessarily know how. You have to keep people busy and once you have everybody's heart and passion behind it, the end result is always gonna be successful.”
The sheer number of attendees can also be daunting. At a dinner earlier last year, the cafe served around 200 people, something the Center did not anticipate.
Still, during his first night, Modha's mission was presenting a multi-course meal of German cuisine.
“Being able to support people through a meal that they wouldn’t normally be able to receive – that’s the best way to speak to the community through your food.”
The way the pay what you can dinner works is that five dollars will feed you and ten or more feeds someone else, too. Proceeds go to maintaining the café and putting together the elaborate dinners.
Some volunteers work to pay for their dinner, while others like Cathy Mastrantuono do it just to give back.
“I just found it very welcoming and I believe in the concept,” Mastrantuono said. “When you live in a community, it really behooves you to be involved because there’s so much to be done.”
The themes for dinners change throughout the year meaning different cuisines and various chefs.
But, one thing that doesn't seem to change is the sense of unity created through Moon Rabbit’s dinners – something attendee and filmmaker Milton Watkins went for during his first café visit.
“Put some food on the table and you’ll see how quickly people gather at the table,” Watkins said. “I think it’s a very unique concept, and I hope it does well.”
The gatherings happen every other month and practicing Buddhism isn’t required. All that’s needed is an empty stomach and a selfless attitude.