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Café Momentum Intern Malik Runnels with Chef Chad Houser.

Recruiting from At-Risk Demographics

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From Dallas to D.C., chefs and restaurants are taking constructive actions to help formerly incarcerated individuals succeed in foodservice careers and life.

By Emily Byrd February 2016 Philanthropy

Even at the highest level of fine dining, silver spoons aren’t given out for free in this industry. It’s for that very reason that restaurants embody the classical ideal of the American Dream: where the ladder to success is accessible to anyone who has the drive to start climbing and the diligence and work ethic to hold on.

At least, that was the ethos that Mikeal Padres says changed his life.

Padres was 17 when he got out of juvenile detention. He had never had a job. He had never had a silver spoon. When he got off the bus leaving juvie, he didn’t even have a pair of socks.

And with the frightening recidivism rates facing the 688,000 Americans leaving prison each year—largely due to the social alienation and slim employment opportunities available to men and women with a criminal record—it was likely that this wouldn’t be the last time Padres found himself in a situation like this. In fact, in his home state of Texas, the recidivism rate for juvenile offenders holds close to 47 percent.

The odds improved significantly for him when his path took him to see Chef Chad Houser, the founder of Café Momentum in Dallas, and a resident of a very different side of town.

Padres’ first judgment calls about Houser: nice guy; good intentions; a little naive; just another white guy out to make some money off a do-gooder project.

Chef Houser, though, withheld his judgments—he had made that mistake before. Instead, he saw potential in Padres as a future chef, waiter, or restaurateur.

So rather than making assumptions, he gave Padres a pair of socks with shoes to go with them, along with a bed to sleep on. Now, nearly a year later, Chef Houser is prepared to give Padres a full-time restaurant job, cooking and teaching other young men coming out of the criminal justice system everything they need to know to be gainfully employed and take care of themselves both monetarily and emotionally.

Café Momentum’s yearlong paid internship program is split into five parts, rotating each participant through different jobs within the restaurant to give interns a holistic education relating to a career in the hospitality industry.

However, in the years before he opened Café Momentum, juvenile delinquents weren’t top-of-mind on Houser’s hiring list at Parigi, a modern, Parisian-inspired bistro where he worked as a chef partner.

It was chance, more than anything, that led him to teach a group of boys from the local juvenile detention center how to make ice cream. The result was a new appreciation for the career potential within a group of young adults who plenty of other employers (and potential mentors) immediately write off.

At the end of that day, Houser knew that he was going to have to figure out a way to help incarcerated kids not just for that day, but for the rest of their lives.Thus, Café Momentum was born.

Well, that is, after doing extensive research and fundraising $250,000 in seed money, then Café Momentum was born.

Through the process, Houser learned that everyone he talked to held the same stereotypes he originally had, and then some. To counteract this, Chef Houser created a pop-up dinner formula for the initial Café Momentum, where his team took over some of the best restaurants in Dallas on sleepy Sunday nights, cooking and serving high-end meals. That team included at-risk youth on the rehabilitation side of having been incarcerated.

The results were impressive: not only did diners experience firsthand the potential work ethic of at-risk youth, they also became avid supporters of the program.

By December 2011, about eight months after the first dinner, Café Momentum doubled the price per ticket from $50 to $100, and seats sold out in a matter of minutes.

In June 2012, Hauser had officially left his beloved Parigi to work full-time at Café Momentum and ultimately to give it a brick-and-mortar presence.

In January 2015, Café Momentum opened as a permanent fixture in Dallas and as a positive environment in which youth who have spent time in juvenile facilities can start spending their time learning life skills while receiving intensive culinary training. The restaurant is open for dinner from Thursday through Saturday, and trainees are responsible for every part of the service—from the prep and table service to the cooking and cleaning.

Crafting a challenging and surprising menu was important for Chef Houser, who knew that while people love to support a good cause, a restaurant is nothing without great-tasting food. Plus, it’s fun for him to surpass expectations and showcase how much the interns can accomplish in the kitchen with elevated dishes such as Shrimp and Grits Beignets ($11), Smoked Carrot Soup ($6), and Short Rib Pot Pie ($23).

Today, the restaurant serves around 150 guests a night, with an average check of $55.

Once the interns graduate, case manager Darian Thomas searches for partnerships and employment opportunities at local restaurants—a task that has become easier since Café Momentum was named one of the 10 Best New Restaurants of 2015 by the Dallas Observer. As case manager, Thomas is also with the interns, providing support through every step of the process, a position that allows him to see how the comprehensive internship program affects each participant from start to finish.

He says the program not only teaches them crucial skills for the kitchen and dining room, it also affords opportunities for kids to bridge the gap between them and other members of the community in a way that only service and breaking bread can.

“It creates this brilliant communication between the kids and the community, and it teaches them about how to interact with people,” he says. “They’re learning how to take direction, how to be sensitive to time pressures, how to cook, and mostly, how to present themselves at this crossroads in their life.”

Thomas says these skills—while universally useful—make each intern especially valuable to restaurateurs who are looking to hire well-trained, passionate employees.

Café Momentum isn’t the only program that is willing to take on trainees who others may have considered unreliable or risky employees. At the Resonance Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which helps incarcerated women prepare for the transition from jail to public life, executives saw a café as the perfect tool to facilitate that transition, and opened Take 2: A Resonance Café in November 2015. At D.C. Central Kitchen, which is run by Chef José Andrés’ ThinkFoodGroup, unemployed adults are trained for culinary careers, often providing a second chance for people whose paths have taken them through addiction, halfway houses, or the criminal justice system. Through programs such as these, the stigma associated with hiring ex-cons is slowly being lifted and replaced with a new association: People who leave prison in search of second chances can find a spot in the restaurant world, so long as they’re willing to work. Hard.

For Chef Brandon Chrostowski, founder of Edwins Leadership & Restaurant Institute in Cleveland, hard work is the great equalizer that transcends history, language, and prejudice.

Because of this, Chef Chrostowski bristles when he hears the stereotypes leveled at men and women who have served time, having narrowly escaped that fate himself.

He can easily summon the memory of his own brush with the legal system—one that could have led to a prison sentence had a judge not granted him a second chance and a one-year probation period. The young Chrostowski quickly seized a job opportunity offered by a chef in his home city of Detroit in what would turn out to be a powerful mentorship, starting Chrostowski on an upward trajectory that would lead him from The Culinary Institute of America, to Lucas Carton in Paris, to Chanterelle and Le Cirque in New York City, to name a few. He can also add the titles of certified sommelier and fromager to his résumé.

During his time under the tutelage of multiple chefs, Chrostowski says, he learned just how much he was capable of achieving. “No matter how impossible the task seems, what you say is, ‘Yes, Chef.’ You find a way to kick, scratch, claw, and handle more than you think is possible.”

He brought this level of intensity and his “perfect practice makes perfect” mantra to every kitchen he cooked in, but after years of living in poor neighborhoods while working in the best restaurants in town, the dichotomy started to wear on him. When he learned that an old friend had been murdered back in Detroit, Chrostowski couldn’t stop thinking that if the friend had possessed his knowledge and skill set, things might have turned out differently. True to form, he acted on it, setting out to reshape lives by teaching culinary fundamentals through high-level French cuisine—despite cynics decrying that his target trainees wouldn’t be capable of such a high level of finesse and dedication.

Chrostowski thought otherwise. He took the focus he had always brought to the kitchen and brought it the classroom, taking courses in teaching and writing a business plan for what would later become Edwins Leadership & Restaurant Institute. The program, which took 10 years to move from idea to reality, gives formerly incarcerated adults a foundation in the hospitality industry while providing the support necessary for a successful re-entry into society.

Finally, the institute was incorporated into a nonprofit, community partnerships were made, and pilot programs got off the ground in prisons in 2012.

Still, the common response was disbelief and doubt. How would Chrostowski take former inmates and make them into tomorrow’s kitchen leaders? People contended that the trainees would never come to work, and that they wouldn’t know the first thing about fine-dining service. The menu that is taught includes an impressive inventory of French classics, from frog legs and foie gras to escargot and rabbit pie.

“We really have to be twice as good to become accepted, because we’re playing from the rough,” he says. “Look at the NFL: If you have a mark on your record but can run the football 300 yards, you’re going to get a position. So if you’re excellent at what you do, no matter what your past says, you’re going to have a future.”

It’s hard to dispute his logic when looking at the program’s 98 percent employment rate post-graduation.

Not to imply that the success rate means training is easy: For the students, it’s especially difficult during the first three weeks of training, when about half of the trainees drop the program after being faced with rigorous hours and difficult memorization tasks relating to food costs, yield percentages, and nutrition—all before moving on to different front- and back-of-house work stations.

For Chrostowski and the rest of the management team, the difficulties faced are similar to those found at any restaurant—especially when it comes to maintaining enough revenue to keep the doors open.

Currently, the restaurant partially sustains the revenue of the institute, with outside contributions filling the gaps.

“Edwins was created to demonstrate that this can be done, and this really could end up reaching a lot of people,” he says. “But realistically, it’s a restaurant. I know it’s working and I see people getting closer to their goals every day. But it could all be taken away tomorrow.”

As Edwins becomes more stable and sustainable, Chrostowski has plans to build a butcher shop next door to give more breadth to the students’ education while also driving down costs for the restaurant.

Despite his concerns, the program is going strong—strong enough to start renovations on a new dormitory and formulate plans to expand the program to other cities, where he says institutes like Edwins can be the catalyst not just for change in the lives of individuals, but also to promote community-wide revitalization. He also hopes that other restaurants will see the value of investing in its employees.

“I hope every restaurant that looks at us says, ‘Hey, if I stay 10 minutes later than I was planning and show this guy how to truss a chicken or how to cut julienne, that’s going to help someone more than I would ever know,’” Chrostowski explains.

And that’s the key—giving people an opportunity to learn, work hard, and acquire the fundamental skills to succeed in the world of foodservice.