Nancy Leson, Seattle Times food writer, put on a starched apron and joined the volunteer crew waiting tables at FareStart Restaurant's Guest Chef Night. FareStart offers a culinary training program that benefits the homeless and disadvantaged. The guest chef dinner raises money for the program.

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We’re wearing starched aprons and sturdy shoes. We’ve got pens and notepads in our pockets along with cheat sheets describing tonight’s $24.95 prix-fixe menu and in a very few minutes the first wave of more than 200 paying guests will make their way through the front door.

Fifteen years after giving up my waitressing career, I’m tending tables as one of a group of volunteers preparing to smile and — as instructed — “greet guests warmly,” pour ice water and offer additional liquid refreshment at FareStart Restaurant’s Guest Chef Night. But when it comes to sharing the love at FareStart, whose nonprofit training program benefits the homeless and disadvantaged, there’s no experience required.

“Is anyone terrified?” asks Adrienne Easter, FareStart’s energetic operations manager. “I am,” admits a first-timer joining her friends from the “Grub Club” — a group from St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Bellevue. Along with many of tonight’s volunteers, she’s never waited tables in her life. Me? I’m calm as a cuke. As are several fellows from the Seattle branch of the food-service company Sysco, whose generous sponsorship extends to this Thursday-night gig, when members of the company’s sales force fight for the chance to lend a hand in the dining room.

But who can blame anyone for sporting a bad case of nerves? In the brief hour before service, FareStart’s operations manager has given us a crash course in table service. It’s a lesson that extends from “be attentive, unobtrusive and gracious” while we “hold plates from the rim” to the following:

Beverage offerings, not included in the three-course prix-fixe, encompass a dozen different wines. Half are available by the glass, and one has been procured by Grub Club member and Saintpaulia Vintners winemaker Paul Shinoda. For teetotalers, bottles of Dry Soda make an elegant nonalcoholic option when served with fluted stemware, and the fizzy stuff is available in four flavors: kumquat, lemon grass, rhubarb and lavender — with the latter two making a particularly fine pairing with the evening’s main course, grilled Anderson Ranch lamb loin.

We’re instructed not to put in the order for entrees until customers have finished their salads, not to serve alcoholic beverages (only a handful of permitted “professionals” do that job here) and not to reuse the bread served in spiffy metal breadbaskets, even if it’s been untouched. Unlike at Starbucks, espresso drinks can be made with 2 percent or soy milk only. We should retrieve these at the beverage service area, and be sure to offer them, along with coffee served in heavy Starbucks mugs.

Dessert, and everything else we need to keep our customers satisfied, must be ordered though our table captains. These experienced hands — some of whom hang out in their off-hours — have made it their business to volunteer here regularly, making FareStart a social service in more ways than one.

Force-fed the menu’s particulars, we’ve learned that tonight’s salad is composed of greens from Full Circle Farm, the goat cheese garnish is from River Valley Ranch and the dessert ingredients come compliments of Columbia City Bakery (puff pastry), Rock Island Orchard (peaches) and Empire Ice Cream (brown sugar-blackberry swirl). Got that?

Quality ingredients, dedicated volunteers and customers who love combining a good deal with a good deed help explain why Guest Chef Night is often sold out.

Pleased to be dining in such a lovely setting at a time when many people don’t have the money to buy groceries, patron Teresa Buckland tells me, “I can feel OK about spending money on myself without feeling selfish!” She’s seated at a table in my three-table station with colleagues Rica O’Conner, of Edmonds, and Tim Bradshaw, visiting from Great Britain. “This meal was as good as any I’ve had in England,” says Bradshaw, impressed after spooning up the last of his dessert.

Every penny customers spend here — whether it’s at weekday lunch (when paid staff tend tables) or at Guest Chef Night (when some of the city’s top chefs share the spotlight with FareStart’s culinary students) — helps lead to a better life for the students who’ve made it their quest to find a new life through FareStart’s intensive 16-week culinary training course. That course extends from life skills to knife skills, produces 2,500 meals a day for homeless shelters and low-income day-care facilities, and for many of those in the rigorous program, leads directly to jobs in the food-service industry.

Long shoehorned into antiquated quarters in Belltown’s Josephinum building, FareStart, launched in 1992, welcomed the public to its new 124-seat restaurant at Seventh and Virginia in 2007. “I used to be a busboy in the old place,” says Tim Hicks, a regular volunteer and the self-proclaimed “wine guy” helping tend bar. “You really had to turn the tables there, it was so small.”

Another volunteer tonight is guest chef Seth Caswell, president of Seattle Chefs Collaborative and late of Stumbling Goat Bistro, soon to open a bistro of his own. His portrait joins scores of others on a wall adjacent the bar, a group that represents some of the city’s best-loved and nationally recognized restaurants. Each chef has shared time and talent, lending inspiration to FareStart’s culinary scholars — some of whom are dining here tonight as guests themselves, in honor of their graduation from the program.

During a quick, colorful show-and-tell in the kitchen, Caswell explains we’ll be serving Blue Bird Grain Farms emmer, grown in Eastern Washington, enhanced with Parmesan and fashioned into “farro fries.” Those fries, Caswell explains, may be served alongside grilled summer squash for anyone who’s pre-ordered a vegetarian meal. Emmer, not incidentally, will be the name of his restaurant, one he hopes to open next spring in Seattle’s burgeoning South Lake Union neighborhood.

At 7 p.m., halfway between the first and second seating, Caswell steps out from the kitchen to join newly minted graduates, the program’s toque-wearing instructor-chefs and their student staff — among nearly 50 presently enrolled in the program. They stand tall on the stairs of this dual-dining room where each of three graduating “seniors” is introduced, lavished with praise and gifted with a set of professional chef’s knives, a copy of “Food Lover’s Companion” and a well-earned certificate of achievement.

During the brief ceremony, volunteers take a hiatus from their work and patrons put down their forks as instructors and those they’ve helped mentor step up to the mic for a sometimes-tearful look back. “You never gave up. You have love, and you have sass and you’re going to go a long way,” said chef Kim Bohreer, introducing one of her students. “Everything I learned in this program is such a powerful tool,” said another grateful grad, now employed by a local catering company.

Once the applause dies down and the sounds of a full restaurant again reaches a lively crescendo, I get back to work, clearing and resetting two of my tables with help from my fellow volunteers. Soon those seats are filled with a six-top: 30-somethings who order two bottles of Oregon pinot noir, enjoy dinner and each other’s company and leave a $100 tip, all donated back to the house.

As the evening wanes, captains close out their guest checks and volunteers head downstairs to eat dinner in a brightly lit student dining room, returning later to enjoy a glass of wine at the restaurant’s rough-hewn communal table. Seated there among new friends, this old waitress was happy to say that with the assistance of FareStart staff and community volunteers, and the great goodwill surrounding Guest Chef Night, waiting tables was like riding a bike — unforgettable, and every bit as much fun.

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or nleson@seattletimes.com