Sean Langan, chef and owner of Cafe Amore in Belltown
He helps -- because he has been there, too
A WINNING recipe for helping others, Sean Langan will tell you, takes 80 pounds of corn, 275 pounds of potatoes, 120 gallons of gravy, 125 pounds of stuffing and, yes, fowl, lots of it -- more than 600 pounds of turkey.
Langan, the owner and chef of Amore, a Belltown restaurant, is giving back to the Seattle community on Thanksgiving in an unusually big way. He is cooking and serving a holiday meal for low-income people or homeless families -- all for free.
He's not doing it for a tax write-off. He's not knocking down doors for publicity either -- though good news can't hurt.
The reason he's opening his restaurant at Fifth and Bell to more than 500 needy folks is that near the very same street corner, he used to booze, get high and deal drugs.
He knows all too well what it feels like to be down and out, to feel hunger twined with desperation and think that no one cares.
"It all comes full circle," Langan, 42, told me. "I turned myself around because people gave me a hand up and helped me. This is how I can help give back."
He learned an inglorious lifestyle at a young age. His father, a contractor, operated a smoke-filled tavern on Aurora Avenue, and would pour his son Southern Comfort like tap water. His mother owned a greasy spoon in Ballard. Both parents, he says, abused drugs and alcohol. The two-headed demon caused his mom to lose her business and gave him easy exposure to drugs.
"I was 11," Langan said, "the first time I did cocaine."
By the sixth grade he was selling joints. By high school he was a full-on addict. He started at Ballard High School but finished up -- barely -- at Shorewood. He enrolled in a local college and studied computer science before heading to Alaska where he worked in a kitchen.
He fell in love and had two daughters. But his partner, also a drug addict, eventually left him and the girls.
Somehow, Langan juggled single parenthood with drinking and drugging that continued after he moved back to Seattle. His poor choices and addictions landed him in jail after jail. Whenever he got in trouble, family members took care of the girls.
Eventually, he cratered.
The nadir happened two decades ago at a cockroach-infested motel on Aurora Avenue. He was using drugs and drinking as his daughters, both 5 at the time, frolicked on the floor. He gave them sips of beer.
"They were just babies," he said. "Everything hit me right at that point. I was doing to them what my parents had done to me. I had to break the cycle."
Langan went to Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, where he met people who refused to let him give up on himself. He embraced sobriety before relapsing five years later. After that two-week stumble, he worked hard to get his act together, again.
Out of his haze, he gained clarity. As a kid he used to stand atop crates and cook burgers at his mother's restaurant. Cooking -- a passion he flirted with -- became his calling.
In the mid-90s, he enrolled and got a degree from the Culinary Institute of America. He ran Chanterelles, a restaurant near the Space Needle. Then, he was a chef at the Showbox. Later, he worked as an executive chef for the Hilton chain.
In 2003, he opened Cafe Amore in a small space that was once a glassblowing studio. During his first year of business he fed the poor, but only about 25 people could fit in the space.
Three years later, he moved his restaurant 50 yards down the street to its current home and dropped "Cafe." Last year, an army of Amore staff and volunteers quietly fed 500 needy people turkey and ham for Thanksgiving.
This year, business has been rough. The economy has kept diners at home and hit restaurant owners hard. But Langan vowed to continue his Thanksgiving tradition, even though it will mean forking out more than $4,000 from his pocket and dropping the ham.
"It's not always about money," he said. "I really can't afford to do this. Then again, I couldn't afford not to. The need out there is even greater. If you can't do something for somebody else, your life is meaningless."
Tuesday, his restaurant bustled as cooks prepped 18 turkeys. On Wednesday, he raced the clock to ready nearly two-dozen more birds. Residents in Belltown volunteered their condo ovens to help him pull off the big fowl feeding. A Seattle tour company donated vans to ferry people to Langan's tables. He also has assembled crews to take meals to people in city parks and on the streets.
The joy, he said, comes from seeing smiles of gratitude as people who may be cocooned in woe get to see that others care.
Yes, a helping hand -- with extra servings of inspiration -- may just change a life. "Just look," says Langan, who will celebrate 17 years sober March 12, "at what happened to me."
What do you think?
AHANAOA A. C.
Lic. Nut. Miguel Leopoldo Alvarado