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Cafe 54 in Tucson Is the Real Face of Mental Illness in Arizona, Not Jared Loughner

A big man has a small cut on his finger.

The boss is concerned.

Work on a prep line in a restaurant and sooner or later, you're going to cut your finger. But we're not talking about any ordinary restaurant, and this employee's no ordinary prep line guy.

He's a "trainee" working at Cafe 54, a restaurant in downtown Tucson that hires the seriously mentally ill.

On those Food Network shows, the chefs are always cutting themselves. They wrap their wounds in dishtowels and hold them overhead, continuing to cook and bleed.

That doesn't happen in Mindy Bernstein's kitchen. The founder of Cafe 54 sends anyone with more than a paper cut to urgent care.

Most (if not all) of her trainees take a daily cocktail of strong psychotropic medications with a chaser of lots of therapy — their balance is precarious on a good day. Something as simple as a cut finger can start a downward spiral.

And so when this man returns from the doctor with three stitches and a bandage, Bernstein stops him as he hustles back to the kitchen.

"You're not in pain now?" she asks. "Right, they gave you something. But later you will be. You'll need Tylenol and ice. Come and find me. Okay? Promise?"

He promises.

The concept of using food service in vocational rehabilitation efforts for the seriously mentally ill is nothing new. Typically, you'll find such programs housed in hospital cafeterias; one mental-health program in Phoenix used to have its clients prepare and serve food at its functions.

But Cafe 54 is unique (in Arizona, anyway) in its unwillingness to be anything less than a fine-dining establishment. For starters, it's got a great location — walking distance from the über-hip Hotel Congress, as well as to high-rise buildings housing law firms and other big businesses, and just a few doors down from one of the city's most popular restaurants, Cafe Poca Cosa.

Then there's the menu. You'll have fond memories months later of the curry special, and the beet salad is as good as any around. Ingredients are fresh — organic and sourced locally whenever possible. And the atmosphere's a match to the granola Tucson vibe. In fact, the only thing that separates this little cafe from others nearby is the slightly lower price point (no entree costs more than $10), an incentive to customers.

Like many on her professional team at Cafe 54, Mindy Bernstein has more experience working as a clinician with the mentally ill than in the kitchen with beets and carrots. But this daughter of an egg rancher from Fontana, California, had a lifelong dream of opening her own restaurant, and her touches are everywhere — from the kibbutz-like attitude she was raised with to the periwinkle-blue paint (her favorite shade) on the wall behind the cash register.

The high ceilings and exposed pipes, painted cement floors, funky art on the wall — everything is to her specifications. (She also made sure there's more space in the kitchen, so trainees don't get claustrophobic.) More than once in conversation, Bernstein fingers the tabletops, pointing out that she searched all over for an exact match with the brown exposed-brick walls, laughing about her own obsessive-compulsive tendencies.

But she is careful not to use words like "crazy" in jest. For almost 20 years, she has served as executive director of Our Clubhouse, an advocacy and service organization based on a national model that's been around since the 1940s, housed in the building next door to Cafe 54, where Our Clubhouse participants created all the art on the walls. The restaurant is just the latest in a series of projects (if not its most ambitious yet) she's designed to make life better for at least a few Tucsonans hit hardest by mental illness.

Our Clubhouse offers therapy sessions, free meals, a place to use a computer; some clients work at an adjacent thrift store.

Next door, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, Cafe 54 hums with activity, as artsy types and businesspeople linger at tables, dining on menu items that might include a butternut squash mac 'n' cheese or a Greek beef salad, with treats like chocolate ganache hazelnut tart for dessert. Fresh-baked rosemary rolls are a constant.

Trainees mingle among them, serving food and clearing dishes. It's not easy to qualify to be a trainee. You must be sober, and anger management can't be an issue; only a few can do it.

On your first visit to Cafe 54, you might not notice anything unusual, though the T-shirts, which read "Fresh Cuisine with a Side of Hope," might give it away, or maybe it's that the number you're given to put on your table after you've ordered at the register will bear the photo of a famous person (Sylvia Plath or Teddy Roosevelt, for example) who suffered from mental illness, along with their story. Those were Bernstein's idea, too.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.