The kitchen of second chances

The kitchen of second chances

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Tiny Squirrel

Sometimes we come across things that don’t really fit all our Self-Reliance categories but this story is a stand out we felt we had to share. It shows how as a nation we could overcome so much and as individuals we can have a vision, help people and make things better by using the best of human nature, kindness and just a light touch of government. 

For Marianne Ali, life started simply enough.

Born to a big, “pretty normal” family in Glenarden, Md., Ali remembers helping her mother cook dinner for her father and six brothers and sisters each night after school.

She was 17 when she tried heroin for the first time.

Her addiction wasn’t immediate, but it was vicious. She tried repeatedly and failed to get sober.

 “I was searching for something,” Ali says. “It took me on a 20-year-long journey into the deep waters of misery. And then I got clean.”

At her lowest point, Ali began supplementing her heroin use with crack cocaine. She found herself going down “so hard and so fast” that she was forced to begin her final attempt at sobriety.

“I often say that if it wasn’t for crack cocaine I could still be using heroin,” Ali says. “I knew that if I didn’t seek help, I was probably going to die out there.”

Post-detox, she entered the Marian House, a long-term transitional home run by Catholic nuns in Baltimore. They referred her to a culinary school that she was able to fund with aid money.

And then, at the suggestion of various caseworkers and volunteers, she landed at D.C. Central Kitchen.

She landed on her feet, she says, for the first time in her life.

Under the Radar, Over the Norm

Just about a five-minute walk from Union Station, Washington’s landmark transportation hub, sits the unassuming D.C. Central Kitchen building, slightly pushed back from the sidewalk. If not for the line of weary-looking men and women camped on the dry grass out front, you might not look twice at the square of faded red bricks. To enter, you literally walk through an alleyway.

But the work happening there, in the cramped operating space of the 26-year-old non-profit, takes staff, volunteers and clients on a transformative journey.

“The Kitchen,” as it’s known, was founded in 1989 by restaurateur turned philanthropist Robert Egger. This month, it will celebrate the graduation of its 100th class of culinary job training program students—men and women with histories of homelessness, incarceration, poverty or simply job frustration that have come to D.C. Central Kitchen either in search of new skills and a fresh start or, sometimes, at the insistence of an exasperated family member or probation officer.

Celebrity chef Spike Mendelsohn conducts a pizza demo for culinary job training students at D.C. Central Kitchen. (Photo: D.C. Central Kitchen/Flickr)
Celebrity chef Spike Mendelsohn conducts a pizza demo for culinary job training students at D.C. Central Kitchen. (Photo: D.C. Central Kitchen/Flickr)

It boasts impressive statistics, including a 93 percent job placement rate, a 2 percent recidivism rate among graduates and a cost of $10,000 per student. In contrast, it’s an estimated $50,000 a year to house an incarcerated individual.

Meanwhile, federal programs, often operating at a high cost to taxpayers—according to a 2011 Government Accountability Office report, they cost $18 billion a year—are, generally speaking, failing.

“About every time [federal job training programs] get evaluated using large-scale randomized experiments, they find the programs don’t work,” says David Mulhausen, a research fellow in Empirical Policy Analysis at The Heritage Foundation. “It gets to the point where they’re so sure these programs don’t work, the government is resistant to even doing any sort of evaluations.”

Indeed, according to that same 2011 report, only five of 47 programs identified had done impact studies. Positive outcomes tended to be “small, inconclusive, or restricted to short-term impacts.”

‘Something Stuck’

Ali, positivity rampant despite finding herself fighting a new battle with stage two pancreatic cancer, was hired as a chef instructor at D.C. Central Kitchen over 15 years ago.

“I had never really had a job,” she says. “I had a job here and there, but there was something almost magical and mystical about what was happening in this place. I felt it was the place where I really belonged.”

Though she can’t pinpoint what exactly about the environment at The Kitchen was different, something stuck.

She gradually ascended the ranks to become, in 2005, the director of Culinary Job Training and Kitchen Operations. She oversees a staff of eight in addition to the 25 or so students that make up the classes that come through the Kitchen eight times a year.

At D.C. Central Kitchen, she never felt her past was something to be ashamed of. She felt that she fit in.

“For me, being open about my past has actually been the key to my success,” Ali says. “I have, you know, experienced homelessness, I have experienced trauma, I have experienced abuse, I have experienced all of the things that some of our students have endured. And not just me. I have a staff that knows what’s going on. There’s a sense of camaraderie, a level of trust, and a level of caring that for most of our students, they haven’t ever experienced in their lives.”

It does seem a history of addiction followed by 180-degree rehabilitation is almost more the rule than exception at D.C. Central Kitchen. It’s all a part of the “lending a hand across, not down” mentality of the Kitchen where 60 of the 150 employees are, after all, graduates of the culinary job training program.

The D.C. Central Kitchen motto hangs in the kitchen. (Photo: Madaline Donnelly/The Daily Signal)

The food world also seems particularly forgiving of previously incarcerated or addicted individuals, with individuals who don’t much care whether a line cook has a criminal record or a history of substance abuse.

Indeed, world-class chefs like Anthony Bourdain, a D.C. Central Kitchen supporter who has attended Kitchen fundraising events, have documented their past struggles with drugs and alcohol in memoirs like “Kitchen Confidential.” The “salvation of food” arch is practically a given storyline on any season of reality TV show “Top Chef.”

“Food really brings people together,” says Erica Teti-Zilinskas, associate director of Communications at D.C. Central Kitchen. “There is something about the dialogue around food and eating that puts us all on the same playing field. The job training program is really about giving people a second chance and finding a way to address the root cause of poverty and hunger.”

Having management in place that cares about and perhaps more importantly understands the plight of students—and preparing them for an environment they’ll be welcomed into—is obviously a successful model, according to Salim Furth, a research fellow in Macroeconomics at The Heritage Foundation.

“We’re not the first people to say, ‘You know, maybe if people had jobs, they would earn money for themselves and not be poor,’” he says. “This is not a novel concept. What’s probably unique is the social and human capital that the managers bring to the operation. Or, that the employees are people that are totally bought in…that really believe in it.”

‘Food Won’t End Hunger’

The Kitchen has always done things its own way.

At present, D.C. Central Kitchen provides cost-free meal preparation for 80 partner agencies that distribute food to the needy throughout the District. The organization also manages a trio of social enterprises: a catering service, a lunch program for 10 low-income public schools and a business stocking corner stores in D.C.’s “food deserts” with fresh fruits and vegetables.

Those efforts bring in, astonishingly, up to 60-percent of The Kitchen’s total yearly revenue. The other 40-percent are made up of grants and corporate and individual donations.

“When people hear the name D.C. Central Kitchen, they see our trucks, and they think about food,” says Mike Curtain, chief executive officer of D.C. Central Kitchen. Egger passed the baton on to Curtain when he moved to Los Angeles to found L.A. Central Kitchen in 2012.

“They put us in the bucket of a soup kitchen, or a pantry, or a food bank. All noble endeavors, and necessary,” he says. “But we also know, even though we do a lot of food, no matter how much we do…people will still be hungry tomorrow. Food won’t end hunger.”

Egger launched the culinary job training program in 1990, hoping to provide a hand up to men and women dedicated to bettering themselves but often not equipped to do so. He immediately felt the support of the D.C. restaurant world, who donate leftover food to The Kitchen in addition to teaming up at events throughout the year.

The Kitchen offers culinary job training students a transportation stipend as well as work clothing for the duration of the Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. classes. Meals are provided; attendance is strictly monitored and mandatory. Requests for days off are not well received.

Coursework ranges from knife skills to studying for the Safe Serve Certification, a certification that deals with proper food handling and preparation. It’s a skill that makes students significantly more hirable to partner restaurants and hotels, where they also spend three weeks completing internships at the end of the program—another factor that separates the program from others.

The D.C. Central Kitchen 100th class graduation. (Photo: D.C. Central Kitchen)

“The unfortunate problem with a lot of job training programs is that you take a bunch of time to be in training,” Furth says. “But unless the skills you’re learning are significant, you’re not actually much more employable when you come out.”

D.C. Central Kitchen partner restaurants and hotels include Marriott International, Nando’s Peri Peri, and American University’s catering service, Aramark. Many find full-time work with these companies, who often additionally donate to D.C. Central Kitchen, after graduation.

The Kitchen knows it has the luxury of doing due diligence when it comes to student selection, something federal programs don’t. They host information sessions, allowing potential students to self-select out of the program. After reviewing applications, they conduct interviews, require proof of at least 180 days of sobriety and even run a five-day trial to ensure students have the right disposition for work in the kitchen.

Still, Teti-Zilinskas acknowledges that of a class of 25, around five to seven will drop out. Occasionally, she says, students will leave to deal with personal issues and eventually return to the program and graduate.

Knife Skills, Life Skills

In addition to routine course work, The Kitchen also has morning “self-empowerment” classes that they say are essential to their students’ mental health and success.

A mixture of counseling, therapy, lessons in email and business etiquette, resume workshops and more, the course has become a staple, something graduates still talk about fondly.

For Jackie Brown, who has been working for D.C. Central Kitchen since last October, her self-empowerment class, led by the recently retired D.C. Central Kitchen legend Ron Swanson, left the biggest mark on her personally.

“The questions that he asked made you dig deep, made you realize you were just in denial,” Brown says. “I loved to drink at one point. So he would ask me, ‘So, you had a drink last night?’ I’d get mad. But he pushes you and pushes you to the point where you have to be real with yourself. It was like boot camp, but it was well worth it.”

Brown, who initially heard about the program through a friend’s boyfriend—and waited five whole years from the date she first picked up an application to drop off a completed one—is now in charge of preparing breakfast for 937 people throughout the District each morning. You can see her emanate pride as she rattles off the number.

“I never thought I felt this way about helping, and feeding, and giving back,” Brown says. “The mission is just so awesome. When I walked through that door, I thought it was about cooking. No. You cried, you laughed, you got mad, you get everything. This program changed my life.”

It’s a change that Brown, who spent her career in customer service with various phone companies, coming to The Kitchen somewhat apathetically with vague hopes of making a career change, could never have anticipated.

“The self-empowerment program is really designed to force, uncomfortably at first, the students to confront the issues that brought them to us in the first place,” Curtin says. “All of the knife skills we do, the cooking, the chopping, the braising, the baking, all of that would mean absolutely nothing if someone isn’t going to show up on time.”

Celebrity chef Jose Andres (left) and D.C. Central Kitchen CEO Mike Curtin. (Photo: D.C. Central Kitchen)

All in the Family

It’s hard to visit D.C. Central Kitchen and not take away the feeling that it’s more a family than a business.

For Picom Dews, a formerly incarcerated young chef originally from the District, this couldn’t be more true.

Dews graduated from the culinary job training program last December, and says he never imagined becoming a cook. Where he’s from, he says, it’s just not an opportunity that comes around that often.

His younger brother, who lives with him, is now in the program as well after seeing what it did for his brother’s life. Dews spends his free time mentoring his brother.

“When we go home, it’s all about culinary,” he says. “Teaching knife skills, I teach him how to do the sauces, I teach him this, I teach him that. It helps me. It makes me a better person.”

Dews’ story is a welcome break from the startling reality that unemployment rates for those one-year out of prison are estimated to be as high as 75 percent.

“One of the things that has been found is that when a former prisoner gets attached to work, where losing their job would be very destructive to their life, they tend to desist from crime,” Mulhausen says. “If they care about the job, and the things the job provides them, work has shown as a strong causal explanation for desisting from crime.”

Dews is attached to his work—and rightfully proud of turning his life around.

“I used to be a knucklehead,” Dews said. “I used to be in the streets. Now, I take care of myself instead of relying on the next person, you know?”

D.C. Central Kitchen says that six months out, roughly 80 percent of graduates remain hired, though they acknowledge that a large problem non-profits like theirs run up against is tracking a naturally transient population. Given that the cooking industry is also transient, it’s not easy to keep tabs on former students. To account for that, The Kitchen has hired an individual whose sole job it is to follow up with students, monitoring their progress with events, email blasts and a dedicated Facebook page.

Despite all they do, D.C. Central Kitchen employees wish they could do more.

“D.C. has one of the highest rates of obesity and hunger and diabetes in the country,” Curtin says. “That’s crazy. That we’re in the capital of the wealthiest country in the world and half of our city has diet-related disease and is hungry is just wrong.”

Still, there are days that it feels their work is enough.

“Interacting with students and actually watching the confidence build and smiles, and a level of happiness that people reach as they start to believe in themselves again,” Ali says. “There’s no heroin on Earth that could make me feel as good as that.”