DC Central Kitchen is fixing that problem, one cooking class at a time.
'm not trying to scare you, but I want you to know what you're getting into."
Daniela Hurtado was speaking to a group of men and women gathered in the basement of the Federal City homeless shelter, two blocks away from the United States Capitol, on a crisp October morning. Hurtado is the culinary chef instructor for DC Central Kitchen, a non-profit that works to fight hunger and empower the hungry in Washington, D.C., a city where over thirteen percent of households experience low or very low food security. The men and women gathered in that basement classroom late last year were the newest students to join the organization's culinary job training program. Nearly a hundred groups of students had gone before, each numbered sequentially. The group of people Hurtado was addressing was Class 98.
From that warning, Hurtado went into the rules for the training program, including the most important one: no one should expect any days off or early dismissals. The attendance policy is as strict as that of the industry it was designed to prepare them for — restaurant employees don't get holidays or weekends off, and skipping a shift can often result in termination. She emphasized that the students should be prepared for an intense course load. "Guys, this is not a game," she said. "This is serious."
A young man whose dreadlocked hair was pulled back into a ponytail raised his hand. "If we are on parole or probation, are we allowed to be excused early?" he asked. Marianne Ali, director of the program, stepped in to answer. "Absolutely not," she said, going on to explain that Washington's cadre of Community Supervision Officers (CSOs) work in partnership with DCCK, and are willing to schedule parole meetings around the class.
Another deep male voice rose up from a student in the back corner of the room: "As far as culinary careers go, how realistic is it for a convicted felon?" That's a question everyone on staff at the DC Central Kitchen knows how to answer. Terrell Danley — another instructor, whom the students would soon come to know as Chef T — got to it first. "The industry understands," he said. Robert Mann, who coordinates internships and job searches for the students, backed him up. "This is one of the most forgiving industries," Mann said. "If you're willing to do the work, they're willing to give you a chance."
he restaurant industry is famous for its generosity when it comes to chances, and that's something that non-profits, correctional facilities, and ex-convicts are increasingly relying on. Over the past three decades, culinary training programs geared toward placing inmates and ex-offenders in professional kitchens have sprung up across the world. When its culinary job training program launched in 1990, DC Central Kitchen was among the first, shortly followed by Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, which has been training and employing former gang members at its culinary storefronts — which include a bakery, cafe, and diner — since 1992. More recently, Chicago's Cook County Jail started a pilot culinary program in March 2014. The food-service giant Aramark has sponsored similar programs at more correctional facilities across the country. Dallas chef Chad Houser recently opened a restaurant, Cafe Momentum, that doubles as culinary training for young people who've spent time in juvenile facilities. Abroad, Brazilian superstar chef Alex Atala is a volunteer with a new culinary pilot program in a Sao Paulo prison.
The idea behind all of these programs is simple: holding down a restaurant job can keep a person out of prison.
The idea behind all of these programs is simple: holding down a restaurant job can keep a person out of prison. An ex-offender's odds of landing back in the system right after their release are shockingly high: a recent report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, based on data from thirty states, found that for every four inmates released in 2005, three were rearrested within five years. Reasons for recidivism vary depending on a person's circumstances, but one frequent element is the often overwhelming, often discouraging difficulty of finding — and keeping — a job.
This difficulty was explored in a 2003 paper presented by Harvard economist Richard Freeman — "Can We Close the Revolving Door? Recidivism vs. Employment of Ex-Offenders in the U.S." — that pointed out the myriad elements working against a previously incarcerated person who wants a job. Among other things, Freeman explained, "employers generally prefer other workers to ex-offenders. Some employers cannot legally hire persons with criminal records for some jobs. Other employers eschew ex-offenders for fear that customers or other workers would sue them if the ex-offender harmed them during work activities." Other obstacles, he added, can include the ex-offender's educational level or medical history: studies suggest that inmates tend to be less educated and have a greater likelihood of physical, mental, and learning disabilities than non-offenders.
But the restaurant industry is different. A chef doesn't much care if a line cook or dishwasher has a criminal record or problem with drug abuse, as long as he gets his work done. The mythology of restaurant work has always drawn on themes of addiction, violence, and redemption: this is an industry whose most famous son, Anthony Bourdain, published a memoir of his addictions in 2000, and fifteen years later now hosts one of the most respected programs on cable news. It's an industry where just about anyone can both get and keep a job, as long as he has the right combination of cooking skills and a willingness to start from the bottom.
A chef doesn't much care if a line cook or dishwasher has a criminal record or problem with drug abuse, as long as he gets his work done.
DC Central Kitchen has been putting this theory into practice for the last twenty-five years, ever since founder Robert Egger wondered why local soup kitchens were serving the same clientele over and over, instead of empowering them to pull themselves out of poverty. Like a soup kitchen, DC Central Kitchen fights hunger, but in a very different way: kitchen employees and volunteers transform leftover food — donated by partners in the hospitality industry — into new meals for institutions served everywhere shelters to schools. Meanwhile, the culinary job training program takes in many of the same people who benefit from those meals, and teaches them how to get a job cooking them.
Over its lifetime, DCCK's culinary job training program has evolved into a fourteen-week course that follows the structure of most culinary schools. For the first seven weeks, students practice culinary basics: they learn knife skills, memorize the five mother sauces, and learn how to discern the doneness of meat, chicken, and fish. That's followed by a four-week internship, and finally another three weeks for an assisted job search. All the while, the organization guards vigilantly against anything else that might hold students back, providing on-site counseling, group therapy, resume tips, and a daily self-empowerment class.
But the program hasn't always been this way. It began in 1990 as a shorter course that mostly focused simply on helping unemployed individuals learn basic culinary skills and get a job. Internships and self-empowerment — now among the most crucial components of the program's success — came later. What also came later was the aspect that is now a defining element: a shift in organizational recruiting to focus on the lives, and livelihoods, of people who have spent time in prison.
ope Village is a halfway house located in Washington's Southeast quadrant. Some of the men and women who get out of prison in Washington, DC, are funneled into structures intended to help them find jobs, homes, and to generally learn how to be a part of the society from which they'd previously been isolated, including re-entry programs and halfway houses. Anyone who's been through Hope Village knows its name is misleading. As a 2013 Washington Post headline wryly put it, "To some, D.C. halfway house is more like 'Hopeless Village.'"
Kevin Minor called it "No Hope Village." The 55-year-old DC native is a member of DCCK's Class 98. He passed through the halfway house in the 1990s, after serving eight years in prison for aiding and abetting a drug transaction. There were no real programs for rehabilitation for a parolee back then, he said, just a place to sleep and regular urine screenings. Hope Village is located in one of DC's most violent neighborhoods; gunshots nearby would keep Minor awake at night. "It was scary out there, even for the criminals," he said.
On a Thursday afternoon last November, DCCK staffers Sarah Riley and Jeff Rustin pulled their official white van up the intersection of Langston and Raynolds streets, in front of Hope Village. A woman had recently been found dead in a burned-out row house across the street, and cleaning crews were getting the yard ready for a candlelight vigil later that night. The halfway house where Minor once lived is one of Riley and Rustin's regular stops to recruit for each new class in the culinary job training program, part of a recruitment rotation that also includes visits to all the branches of the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA), open houses held at the Kitchen's headquarters, and monthly videoconferences with a North Carolina jail.
"The Kitchen has always looked at itself not as a charity or as a typical non-profit, but as a driver of economic development."
As DCCK's program administration manager, Riley generally leads each recruitment session, with Rustin, an outreach specialist, at her side. She explains to the prospective students that this isn't a culinary school; they're going to learn kitchen awareness, not fancy techniques. She drives home the fact of the hard work and strict attendance policy. Rustin steps in to emphasize the importance of the mandatory self-empowerment class — which exists, he said, "not just to get you the job, but so you hold onto the job." Riley and Rustin also reassure the prospective students that having a criminal record won't hurt their chances of getting into the program — or getting a job after they graduate.
Mike Curtin, the CEO of DC Central Kitchen, likes to say that his organization "has always looked at itself not as a charity or as a typical non-profit, but as a driver of economic development." D.C.'s economy is dragged down by plenty of factors, but two of the most pressing are its staggering unemployment level and its high incarceration rates. Both of those are numbers DC Central Kitchen aims to reduce: by Curtin's calculations, the average incoming culinary job training class (of whom former inmates make up only a portion; the groups also include individuals dealing with addiction, grief, and disability) are has already cost the community about $6 million in years of incarceration, halfway house residency, supervised release, and drug treatment. The cost to DC Central Kitchen to train the same group of people and help them find jobs is a relatively small $200,000.
That number doesn't take into account the value to the city of helping the members of each class stay out of the system — including helping those who have spent time in prison find a path to keep them from returning. In the United States, two thirds of former inmates are back in the system within a few years of release; in contrast, the recidivism rate for DC Central Kitchen graduates is just two percent. People who have spent time in prison are successful at DCCK. In The Food Fighters, his self-published history of the organization's quarter-century in business, chief development officer Alexander Justice Moore writes that DCCK's recruiting program bore serious results for the program: "As the percentage of ex-offenders in a class rose so did the graduation rate" — an increase from sixty-two to eighty-seven percent from 2007 to 2010.
In the United States, two thirds of former inmates are back in the system within a few years of release. The recidivism rate for DC Central Kitchen graduates is just two percent.
(Some of the program's success in that period can be attributed to the simultaneous growth of Washington D.C.'s own re-entry program, which provides additional structure and support in the form of GED training, job search centers, and regular oversight by a Community Supervision Officer. That kind of structure surrounding ex-offenders helps to hold them up in off hours and weekends when the Kitchen's staff can't be there. "All the literature suggests that people who are working are more likely to succeed if they're on community supervision," said CSOSA's Cedric Hendricks, "because that brings to their life a measure of stability and financial support. That doesn't inoculate them from a return to criminality, but certainly makes it a little less likely.")
Kevin Minor knew what it meant to have a legitimate job. After the 1988 conviction that got him eight years in prison and that stay in Hope Village, he dabbled in real estate, telecommunications, and a gig at a barber shop. But he still had too much spare time — "the devil's time," he called it — and was still spending time with the same people he had hung out with before his arrest. In 2006, Minor was caught by the law again, charged with conspiracy to sell cocaine. "It just seemed like I couldn't hit the brakes," he said. "I just didn't know when to quit." After another eight years in prison, he was released in 2014, moved into a halfway house in suburban Maryland, and decided to enroll at DC Central Kitchen.
The re-entry program at his new halfway house was more robust than what Minor had experienced at Hope Village. The administrators helped with resumes and job applications. They insisted on motivation — and Minor was motivated. He grew up loving to cook, and gladly cooked his way through his incarceration: kitchen duty is the best job you can have in prison, he said. Eventually, Minor wanted to have his own seafood restaurant — his specialty was making crab cakes. But in the meantime, he was willing to do the grunt work. Throughout his time with DC Central Kitchen, he regularly offered to wash dishes, fetch equipment, and help the staff move furniture around.
"Now I'm determined not to enter the same circles," he said of his old habits. No matter how much cash he got from the drug trade, the decade that he spent in prison made it worthless. He figured he could have made just as much money spending those ten years working at McDonald's.
n a Friday afternoon just a few days after Class 98's orientation session, Helen Harris was totally jazzed. She and her classmates were special guests at Class 97's graduation ceremony, honored with front row seats. Except Harris couldn't seem to stay seated. Throughout the ceremony, she leapt up in her jeans-and-denim-jacket combo, hair tied up in a red wrap, and snapped photographs of the graduates on her smartphone. They weren't friends of hers, but it was hard for anyone present not to get swept up in the ritual of the graduation, a redemption showcase that DC Central Kitchen now produces seven times a year.
Class 97 had entered the auditorium wearing white robes, dancing to a song whose lyrics joyfully declared, "I'm good enough to love myself / I'm good enough to have success." The audience drummed their hands before the announcement of each award: most valuable player, most improved. Ron Reaves, a Class 97 student who had been elected class representative, addressed the crowd, talking about returning from Iraq, his year of homelessness, and the blood clots a doctor found in his lungs. He quoted Nietzsche. He said, with emotion, "If you don't change your life, your life will change you."
But the most uplifting part of the graduation ceremony was in the numbers. The statistic was repeated often: out of Class 97's twenty-one graduates, sixteen had already found jobs in the local hospitality industry. Three-quarters of graduates leaving with job in hand is a fairly normal rate for DC Central Kitchen classes, actually — maybe even a little low. The organization reports that in an average class, three-quarters of students graduate, with seventy-seven percent of those students holding a job upon graduation. In 2014, ninety-three percent of DC Central Kitchen's graduates found employment.
Class 98's presence at Class 97's graduation was deliberate. DCCK intentionally schedules the graduation of each group to fall during the first week of an incoming class. Attendance at the ceremony is mandatory; after all, what could serve as better inspiration for the three months ahead of them than this exuberant presentation of the finish line? The success rate of each class is a powerful motivator for the next: Work hard for three months, and three-quarters of you, too, will have new jobs and new lives. It works: a week after Class 97's graduation, when Class 98 students reflected on their first week, many of them cited attending the graduation ceremony as a major highlight — and an accomplishment.
Daycare plans fall through. Working a night shift job before a full day of classes is taxing. Some students fail their drug tests.
But not everyone graduates. In fact, six out of twenty-three members of Class 98 would drop out before their January 10 ceremony; it's eight out of twenty-five, if you count the first two weeks of probationary classes, which DCCK does not include in its numbers. That's a higher rate than average, but every group is different, and there are many reasons why students might drop out. Daycare plans fall through. Working a night shift job before a full day of classes is taxing. Some students fail their drug tests. Others may decide they're just not interested in culinary arts. Still others just don't like their teachers or fellow students. Some of the DCCK staff members wondered if it was just the end-of-year timing of the course for Class 98, that the challenge of working hard and finding a job over the holidays was too daunting.
Class 98 had its share of strong personalities, too — distinct and sometimes clashing. Harris, a lanky black woman coming out of years of addiction, was perhaps the most outsized personality of them all, always the first to volunteer for a cooking demo, or to ask questions about an assignment, or to hound a visiting chef for selfies. Her antics sometimes rubbed her classmates wrong: they would roll her eyes at her, and she would notice and jump to anger. One afternoon, four weeks into the program, Harris took stock. She wasn't going to let any disrespect from her classmates distract her anymore, she said. No one in her life had ever given her a chance, but now she had been clean for two years. Here at DC Central Kitchen, she said, "they did not give up on me."
But a week later, she had dropped out of the program with no warning and no explanation. And though DC Central Kitchen's staff members do try to find the students who leave and persuade them to return — or at very least try to find out why they've left — the root cause of dropping out is often simply one of no longer wanting to be there. "The people who aren't successful in the program are the people who aren't ready for change," said David Hill, who served as the Kitchen's in-house licensed clinical social worker until this past December. So, to help ensure their students' success, DC Central Kitchen has a plan in place to help them become ready.
ew students have made it through DC Central Kitchen's culinary job training program without fighting with Ron Swanson (no, not that Ron Swanson), the Kitchen's longtime self-empowerment instructor. Swanson started as a volunteer in 1998 and worked with DCCK for sixteen years — most of them spent wearing the same uniform of khakis, a black turtleneck, and sandals with socks — before Class 98 sat in his classroom. Like their predecessors, most of Class 98 didn't like Swanson much at first. For one thing, he was a hard-ass about attendance: if you were one minute late, you were out of class for the morning. If you forgot your name badge, you had to hand over a dollar. He never tolerated slouching or back-talking. He assigned homework.
Self-empowerment is a tough thing to teach, and a tough thing to learn.
But what most often pissed people off about Swanson was the inherently intimate nature of his class. Each morning, Swanson would go around the table and ask students to share. "What were your three highest and three lowest points in life?" he would ask. "What are the unsuccessful past behaviors you continue today?" And Swanson wouldn't accept any bullshit in response. "That's a stupid answer," he might say. Or, "That sounds a little dramatic." When one student griped about how boring he found the food safety class — complaining that it was just common sense hygiene — Swanson asked what grade he got on the last exam. It was a 70, a failing grade, and Swanson pointed out that maybe it wasn't such common sense, after all.
Self-empowerment is a tough thing to teach, and a tough thing to learn. But the class, whose curriculum is rooted in the Alcoholics Anonymous model of honesty and responsibility, is a cornerstone of the DC Central Kitchen culinary job training program. Students share their experiences and, for all his toughness, Swanson is sure to make clear to them that they never have to share beyond their comfort zones. He thanks them for telling their stories, and is open about his own history of alcohol abuse. When one woman collapsed into her tears while talking about her daughter, who was killed by a drunk driver, Swanson was quiet and careful with his words. "This isn't set out to make you sad," he said of the sharing process. "But there's sadness in our lives. Human lives are just horrendously painful sometimes."
The members of Class 98 had been through more than their share of horrendous pain — both those who had spent time in prison, and those who hadn't. There was Rickey Ryan, who turned to drugs after the death of his son years ago. Whitley Ready's brother was sentenced to 127 years in a prison that's too far away for her to visit. "I lost my best friend for life," she said. And J escaped an abusive partner only to have him track her down in another state, at gunpoint.
"This isn't set out to make you sad. But there's sadness in our lives. Human lives are just horrendously painful sometimes."
Stories like these aren't uncommon at DCCK, which is why some of the most essential members of the culinary job training program aren't the chefs. They don't teach knife skills, or safety standards, or set students up with jobs; instead, they mostly talk, listen, and watch. For Class 98, those two faculty members were Swanson, the self-empowerment instructor, and Hill, the licensed clinical social worker. (Both men have since parted ways with DCCK — Hill lured by another job, and Swanson by retirement.) Swanson's daily self-empowerment classes encouraged students to reflect on the highs and lows of their pasts and write new narratives for their futures; he and other CJT staff members also led group sessions geared to specific topics: a women's group, or a group for those returning from incarceration. Hill's time with them was often less structured; he would mediate conflicts among students, monitor their behavior in the kitchen, and meet with them individually to talk about problems at home or in class.
This aspect of the program doesn't contribute directly to a student's resume, but it does the similarly important work of helping the members of each class learn how to confront their pasts, and how to develop the soft skills necessary to keeping a job, such as punctuality and deference to leadership. There's also something particular about the bonds that form between students through this honesty, and the respect and inspiration they find in one another. On his hardest days at the Kitchen, whenever he wanted to just walk away, Deron Webb said that he tried to remember what everyone else had been through. And then he'd see that despite everything, they were all still there working. Seeing that helped him find strength: "That was my pep talk for going through the day."
'm going to ask you guys a favor," Will Artley said to the group of students gathered around him, everyone dressed in the crisp white chefs' coats and black-and-white checkered pants they'd been issued the day before. Not quite in unison, they replied, "Yes, chef."
Artley was there to make succotash, but he was preaching first. He asked each student to define what "heritage" meant to him or her. They went through the group. Culture. History. "Who I am and where I come from," one of them said. Those answers were all right, Artley replied. But there was more to it: "You're a family now," he said. "Your heritage is also what you're building right now at DC Central Kitchen."
The chef ticked off his own accomplishments: he'd cooked at the White House. He'd competed on Chopped. Eater DC had named his pizzeria one of the 38 best restaurants in the city. But when he was in high school, he went on, he had been arrested for dealing drugs. He explained that the same philosophy that had helped him lose 135 pounds in the last year was also what helped him work his way from dealing drugs to cooking for the President of the United States. "Anything is possible," Artley said. "Any questions?"
No one answered right away. Finally, Terri Peters spoke up. "I'm just taking it all in," she said, fanning herself.
Artley, a member of the DC Central Kitchen's board of directors, can vouch for the restaurant industry as a place of second chances. After all, it was a chef who had given him a chance after his arrest back in high school. And eight years ago, when a DC Central Kitchen student named Carl came looking for a job, Artley wanted to give him a second chance, too. And so Carl joined Artley's team, where he'd stay for the next six years, eventually climbing up to the rank of sous chef.
There aren't really statistics, local or national, about how many ex-offenders end up in professional kitchens, but it's clear that they do end up there. A 2011 Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency report on offender employment revealed that "grocery chains, food service providers, and construction firms have hired the vast majority" of former inmates under the federal agency's supervision. Top employers included McDonald's, IHOP, Starbucks, and Levy's Restaurants. Cedric Hendricks, associate director of CSOSA's Office of Legislative, Intergovernmental, and Public Affairs, said that hospitality is one of the few sectors where the "prison-involved individuals" he works with are able to find jobs, second in its employment rates only to construction. In 2010, the DC government even briefly ran its own hospitality training program for former inmates, and Hendricks believes that program and DC Central Kitchen are both model tactics for decreasing recidivism.
"It doesn't matter where you're from, what language you speak, what education you've had. If you're willing to work hard, you're welcome here."
CSOSA has been an important partner for DC Central Kitchen over the years, at first referring its clients for job training. When Marianne Ali, director of DCCK's job training program, asked Hendricks only to send students who had an interest in culinary arts, CSOSA agreed. When students were ducking out of class early for visits with their community supervising officers, CSOSA sent a letter to its staff instructing them that clients who were enrolled at DC Central Kitchen could only be asked to meet outside of class hours or during lunch. The two organizations work together on employee recruitment, too, and as a result, they've grown fairly close. Hendricks even nominated Ali for a White House Champions of Change recognition — an award that she won in 2014.
DC Central Kitchen also holds a special place in Washington's restaurant community. Chefs from restaurants across the city regularly pass through the training kitchen to offer cooking demos, or judge the student cook-off that falls in the sixth week of each session. José Andrés, king of the D.C. restaurant scene, helped birth the Capital Food Fight, DCCK's annual fundraiser that offers both restaurant tastings and an Iron Chef-style battle among local chefs, judged by luminaries like Anthony Bourdain and Carla Hall. Andrés is a vocal booster for Kitchen's mission, considering it part of his responsibility as a chef and a restaurateur. DC Central Kitchen made such an impression on Andrés that he founded his own non-profit, World Central Kitchen, which provides culinary training and clean cookstoves in Haiti and beyond. "You could say hunger is not my problem," Andrés said. "Unfortunately, we are in the business of feeding people."
Mike Curtin, the DC Central Kitchen CEO, is himself a former restaurateur, and he appreciates the open-mindedness of that world. "The restaurant industry has been a cornerstone of our country for a long time," he said. "This is a place where anyone can come and work if you're willing to work hard. It doesn't matter where you're from, what language you speak, what education you've had. If you're willing to work hard, you're welcome here."
It's true: for the most part, professional kitchens don't care if you have a college education or a clean record. Will you wash dishes? Can you prep food the way the chef wants it done, and show up on time? "These aren't glorified jobs," said Carla Hall, host of The Chew and long-time DC Central Kitchen supporter, of the entry-level positions most DCCK graduates end up in. Marc Vidal, executive chef of Boqueria, said he doesn't perform criminal background checks at the line cook level when he's hiring for his restaurants in New York, Washington, and Hong Kong. And while he'll make those inquiries when hiring at the management level, he'll overlook it if an employee is promoted from within.
"Everyone deserves a second opportunity. Why not?" he said, adding that he might be even more likely to hire someone who completed a program like that of the DC Central Kitchen since it shows their commitment. "The kitchen is a place where you can learn and grow without knowing anything."
he restaurant industry might be an especially forgiving one, but no one does second chances quite like DC Central Kitchen. In late November, after seven weeks of hands-on culinary training each afternoon — the mornings at DC Central Kitchen are filled with self-empowerment, job skills, and by-the-book ServSafe lessons — it was finally the make-or-break moment: the practical cooking exam. Beginning at noon, and staggered into 10-minute intervals, students had a total of two and a half hours to prepare a meal of chicken breast, risotto, diced squash, and hollandaise.
Kevin Smith was one of the last students on the docket that day. When Class 98 first convened in October, no one had this 50-year-old white guy pegged as a meth dealer. He spoke mostly about his struggles with bulimia and anxiety, and the hopelessness he'd felt when he'd been laid off years before. It wasn't until a couple weeks in that Smith opened up about the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse he'd suffered at the hands of his own parents. And his history with a physically abusive boyfriend. And the death of his first love — a tragic death, the result of system-wide bacteria infection brought on by HIV-related complications.
Smith also shared the fact that he started using meth when he was 30 years old, about six months after his partner had died. He used the drug daily and functionally for years, he said, and when he was laid off from his executive assistant job at an international real estate company, a meth dealer that he knew helped Smith get his own gig started. He'd had some hesitations — he'd seen friends get busted for dealing — but ultimately, dealing was a job. No one was hiring him for legitimate positions, and he had started to doubt they ever would.
When Class 98 first convened in October, no one had this 50-year-old white guy pegged as a meth dealer.
Smith was full of doubt on the day of his practical cooking exam, too. He'd been doing extremely well in the class, earning praise from the instructors for his leadership skills and focus. But anxiety always lingered at the edges. And when ice water spilled across his station at the beginning of his exam, Smith gave into it. Over the next two and a half hours, he was distracted as he diced squash, seared chicken, and stirred risotto. He was tasting his risotto with a spatula when Shantam, the instructor-in-training, arrived to say his time was up. Smith looked up in shock. "Really?" he asked. Yes really. Smith threw down his spatula.
Five minutes later, Smith brought his plated meal — minus the hollandaise, which he had to run back to retrieve — to where chefs Hurtado and Danley were seated. Smith presented the dish to his teachers, who thanked him and sent him back to clean his station. Then they turned their attention to the plate in front of them. The risotto was undercooked and soupy, Danley noticed. Hurtado pointed out that it wasn't arborio rice, which Smith was supposed to use. Matters got worse when Danley cut into the chicken: it was still raw.
Raw chicken earns an automatic failing grade at DC Central Kitchen. But Hurtado and Danley hesitated. Danley, a Culinary Institute of America graduate, pointed out that the failing grade would make sense at the CIA's multi-year program, but that the students here at the Kitchen hadn't received the same intensive training, and come from a different set of circumstances. He suggested that maybe Kevin should get another chance. Hurtado agreed that the students were dealing with different circumstances, but pointed out that when she taught at ICE, if you failed, you failed. That said, she loved Smith and thought he was a real leader in the class. Danley agreed that Smith knew what to do intellectually today, and that he'd just panicked under the pressure. But still, they had to fail him. "He's going to feel so humiliated," Hurtado lamented.
Smith was humiliated. "I was destroyed emotionally," Smith said, recalling that Hurtado had pulled him aside privately to let him know that he'd failed and that he should take the rest of the afternoon off. He was so rattled that he almost didn't come back to class the next day to take the ServSafe exam. But he did, and when he finished the written exam — his eyes widen when he tells this part of the story — the instructors told him to get back in the kitchen. He had two and a half hours to try the practical again.
On his second attempt in the kitchen, Smith scored a 94 out of 100 on the cooking test, one of the highest grades in the class. Hurtado bumped it down to an 84 because it was a re-test, but Smith didn't care. He passed. "They gave me that second chance," he said.
Smith had been vying for a second chance — in any form — for a long time. After selling meth for years, he was caught in November 2013 and charged with two felonies. He spent twenty-two days in the D.C. prison system, which he said "was enough to say ‘this has got to change.'" His case was moved to drug court, part of a program that will reduce his charges to misdemeanors so long as he continues outpatient treatment and submits to random drug tests. With those felonies wiped and the skills and support given to him by DCCK, Smith thinks he'll have a better chance of finding legitimate employment once again. He believes he's been given the opportunity to turn his life around.
few weeks after the practical exam, in December, Deron Webb stood at a prep station, wearing checkered pants, a black button-down shirt underneath the white chefs coat that hugged his muscular torso, with his dreads tucked into a DC Central Kitchen cap. Methodically, he took fistfuls of ground beef from a ten-pound bag and formed them into balls of exactly 6.75 ounces, the preferred hamburger weight at Clyde's Restaurant Group, where he'd been interning. Webb had formed these patties so many times in recent weeks that he generally got it right on the first try. "Most of the work is tedious, it's time-consuming," he said. But it's not that bad. After nicking his fingers on his blade during the first week of his internship, Webb learned to go slowly and get it right. He worked his way through the burger patties, stored them in the fridge, opened a box of mushrooms, and started chopping.
Webb had been incarcerated for ten of his thirty-two years on earth, in three separate stints. At 19 years old, was caught driving a stolen station wagon. He served eight months, but by the end of that year he had landed in jail again, this time on multiple counts of breaking and entering. Over the next three years in prison, he kept busy, earning a certification in auto mechanics. But when he got out in 2006 and went looking for a job at an auto body shop, no one wanted to hire him — what garage would want to bankroll an employee with grand theft auto on his record? He tried out roofing for a while, but eventually he went back to stealing. It was just a business decision, he figured, he wasn't actually hurting anyone. Back then he didn't really care anyway. "The more I went to prison, the angrier I became," he said.
In 2007, Webb was incarcerated for a third time, and this one was the real deal. The previous December, Webb had been driving a passenger van from his mother's Maryland home to a friend's house when police pulled him over. In the back of the van, they uncovered the four stolen motorcycles they'd been tracking via LoJack signal. Webb was convicted and, at sentencing, the judge condemned him to 50 years of jail time — a sentence that Webb and his lawyer got reduced thanks to a Maryland law that allowed the theft of the four vehicles to be counted as one crime, rather than separate offenses.
"I don't take none of this for granted. For real. I appreciate the fact that I'm sitting here cutting mushrooms."
Webb was released from prison in July 2014, and immediately started looking for a job in retail, making calls to Macy's, JCPenney, and Abercrombie & Fitch. But he didn't get any calls back, not after he had checked the box on the application to acknowledge his prior convictions. (DC's "Ban The Box" law, which prohibits employers from asking for criminal histories on an initial job application, didn't go into effect until December of that year.) That's when he turned to a local job training non-profit called Project Empowerment, which in turn set Webb up at DC Central Kitchen and paid him a stipend of $7.50 an hour to attend class. And though DCCK's internships are generally unpaid, Webb continued to receive a stipend for the work he did at Clyde's every weekday from noon to 8 p.m.
While a few D.C. restaurants like Clyde's participate in the internship program — and others offer to participate — most students end up interning in hotel or catering kitchens. Robert Mann, the job skills teacher at the Kitchen who helps students craft their resumes and practice their interviewing technique, said that for DC Central Kitchen's purposes, the latter type of internship is better for the students. Work in a restaurant kitchen tends to be fast paced and cramped, with punishingly late hours that aren't friendly to childcare. A hotel or catering kitchen gives students more space and time to adjust. So most members of Class 98 ended up interning at Marriott — a corporate sponsor of the class — or with one of the many local outlets of food-service giant Sodexo, rotating among stations from salads to pastry. With his paid restaurant work, Webb was an outlier.
He was okay with that, though. The eight-hour shifts of monotonous prep work at Clyde's — with another five hours of cleaning office buildings, his night job, on top of it — were better than what he had going on before, cooking in prison for ninety-five cents a day. To him, the job at Clyde's was a blessing. "I've got to put my life back together man," he said. He said he could eventually see himself as a sous chef or owning a breakfast bar or becoming a real estate shark — but he'd rather start at the beginning than do nothing at all. And anyway, he figured he'd get there in due time. "I don't take none of this for granted," he said. "For real. I appreciate the fact that I'm sitting here cutting mushrooms."
nce the internships are over, only three weeks remain in DCCK's culinary job training program, and they're dedicated entirely to job hunting. Students are required to come in daily to file their requisite three job applications per day; if they can't come into the kitchen due to job interviews, they have to notify Mann ahead of time. For Class 98, those three weeks also happened to include Christmas and New Years, throwing their regular class schedule just a little off-kilter. So there were noticeably fewer students than usual in the kitchen's cramped computer lounge, surfing Craigslist for job openings and cold-calling everyone from hot dog restaurants to hospital cafeterias.
But certain absences loomed large; a few members of Class 98 didn't return to the Kitchen at all after their internships were up. For various reasons — frustrations, fear, an unreadiness to move forward with this path — they had dropped out of the class. In the culinary job training program's early days, this was normal, dropout rates ticking up as students became overwhelmed by the looming prospect of adjusting to a regular work environment. And so DCCK added the four-week internship to the middle of the program, a constrained opportunity for work experience, one that assured students that they'd be able to return to the comfort of the classroom. Late-term dropouts almost entirely ceased.
Class 98 broke that pattern. Only about two-thirds of the class would graduate, and it wasn't looking likely that their job placement numbers would match those of Class 97. Also uncertain was whether those jobs would pay their bills. Scrolling Craigslist, Kevin Minor spoke up about a friend of his who had worked as a sous chef at Seasons 52 and, after four years there, still only earned $14 an hour. "I've told you before that restaurants don't pay as much," said Mann. "That's why I try to push you toward hotels."
There weren't any bites. It was frustrating, and Webb was growing tired of the struggle.
The students were working hard to find jobs. Minor had interned in the staff cafeteria at Marriott's Maryland headquarters, and hoped they'd hire him back once he graduated. Every now and then, he'd call to check in, but he was also looking into jobs cooking for a non-profit for at-risk youth or working in hospital cafeterias. Deron Webb had given up on Clyde's — his internship hadn't ended well — but he had a phone interview coming up with Wegman's, he'd dropped some applications off with a local restaurant group, and he'd walked around the National Harbor development to pick up business cards from Rosa Mexicano and Cadillac Ranch. In the DCCK computer lab, he was constantly on his phone, calling to check on leads or to ask for the best time to bring in a completed application. But there weren't any bites. It was frustrating, and he was growing tired of the struggle. But he refused to give in, saying that he figured this was the mindset that got him into trouble in the first place. "Poverty will play a vicious trick on your mind," he said.
Meanwhile, Kevin Smith scored an interview at grocery chain Harris Teeter right out of the gate in his job search, and a conditional job offer to work as a cook for their hot bar rolled in the very next day. He was thrilled that his years of unemployment — years that he'd spent wrestling back fears of inadequacy — seemed to be over. That is, until January 8, the afternoon before Class 98's graduation. That day, when he got home from the Kitchen, Smith found a letter from Harris Teeter listing his two felony drug charges. "Mr. Smith, before we can consider you any further, we want to know some information," the letter read. Smith was terrified. Had he come this far only to fail in the end?
eventeen white toques were perched on seventeen blue-green chairs at the front-right of the United States Navy Memorial auditorium. Mike Curtin, Daniela Hurtado, Terrell Danley, Robert Mann, Jeff Rustin, Sarah Riley, Ron Swanson, and other members of the DC Central Kitchen staff sat in chairs on the left side of the room. "There's Carla," whispered a woman in the audience, pointing as celebrity chef Carla Hall entered the auditorium and took a seat with the staff. Music filled the auditorium, a recording of gospel singer Kirk Franklin: "I smile because I didn't give up..."
Instructor-in-training Anand Shantam led Class 98 down the same stairs they'd seen their predecessors walk fourteen weeks before. "Aren't we proud of them today?" Shantam asked, as the procession of students smiled, clapped, and danced behind her in their chefs' whites. Deron Webb lifted his arms in praise while moving to the beat. The processional took a turn at the front of the auditorium, past Hall, who was up on her feet dancing with them, and snaked through to their seventeen waiting seats, where the graduates put on their toques and sat. Facing them in the front row of the auditorium, the incoming members of Class 99 were up on their feet with applause.
In many ways, this graduation ceremony was a lot like the ninety-seven graduation ceremonies that had come before it: speeches, awards, certificates, cheers. But each class at DC Central Kitchen is different, and this day belonged to Class 98. The photographs flashing across a projection screen behind them were of the students crowding around Boqueria chef Marc Vidal for advice, posing together on a field trip to L'Academie de Cuisine, or working together in the student kitchen while LaTawsha Lee — a student who was recognized during the ceremony for her humor and sunny disposition — made a face at Kevin Smith. Terri Peters won Ron Swanson's award for the strength she'd gained through self-empowerment, and when she received her certificate, her brother stood up in the audience and shouted, "That's my sister!"
The supporting cast was different for this graduation, too. Kathleen Wellington, the director of culinary sustainability for Marriott, spoke to the audience about the love of cooking and the familial bond you find in a kitchen. José Andrés, who arrived midway through the ceremony, declined an offer to speak extemporaneously, but stood and applauded from the sidelines. And, of course, there was Carla Hall.
Hall spoke to the graduating class and the assembled audience, sharing the story of her career — going from fashion model, to caterer, to Top Chef contestant, to fearing she was about to be fired from her co-hosting gig on The Chew. As Hall told it, in September 2014, the show's researchers discovered that the popularity of the show's three male hosts, Mario Batali, Michael Symon, and Clinton Kelly, had outpaced that of Hall and her fellow female colleague Daphne Oz. Hall said that right there in that meeting with executives from the network, even though she knew that she shouldn't, she began to cry.
But, she went on, she also spoke up. In that meeting, she remembered how it felt like a slap in the face when soul music legend Gladys Knight had appeared on the show and producers paired her with Symon, a white man, to make soul food — Carla's food. She recounted to the assembled graduates what that memory inspired her to say to the network executives: "The reason people don't know me per your research is because you made me a backup singer." Even though she felt like she had failed, Hall told the audience, "Getting it wrong the first three times is not a bullet."
After the presentation of certificates, Robert Mann stood and walked over to the podium. "I have the opportunity and pleasure of introducing you all to the representative of Class 98," he said. "We've had a chance to know and to love him. He's been a special guy in the entire program, not just a student but he's become a friend to a certain degree. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Kevin Smith."
"It's so easy to get up in your head and forget about all the good that you've done."
As the audience applauded, Smith approached the lectern in his toque and his chefs' whites. "Let me catch my breath," he said, to laughter. "First of all, I am humbled that my classmates bestowed his honor on me. It means a lot to someone who has come from the kind of past I have." Kevin Minor nodded as Smith described the catharsis of revealing his history of abuse and drug use to the class. "We became that much more of a family," he said of that honesty. "We discovered that no matter where we come from, no matter the color of our skin, no matter what our background is, we all have struggles."
Including his most recent struggle. "Yesterday, I received a letter that kind of rocked my world," Smith said, explaining how proud he'd been of his job offer from Harris Teeter, and the crushing realization that it could be rescinded because of his past mistakes. "Last night, I wanted to curl up in a ball and just hide," Smith told the auditorium, explaining that part of him didn't want to return to the school the next day for graduation. "It's so easy to get up in your head and forget about all the good that you've done," he said. That was how he'd always reacted to these kinds of setbacks in the past, hiding away from them. But not anymore: "Mr. Mann and I talked about this letter," Smith said, "and we already have a plan of attack on how we're going to get past it."
The auditorium didn't even wait for Smith to finish before bursting into applause. And as he and his classmates presented their teachers with commemorative t-shirts, Smith turned to the audience and said, "This program really does make a difference."
DC Central Kitchen's program doesn't work for everyone. There will always be the dropouts who just weren't ready, or students who continue to struggle post-graduation. Some — a small number, but some — end up back into the prison system. But the program is a model for change (quite literally: the Kitchen has a revolving door of global non-profit visitors looking to it for guidance); it's a model for second chances. The organization's curriculum, with its mix of self-empowerment, soft skills, and culinary training, paves a path toward a steady job for former inmates, one that challenges them and — should they be lucky enough to land in the right kitchen — can even allow them some creative expression.
A week after graduation, Deron Webb was still in the DC Central Kitchen computer lab, carrying on his job search. "Everybody's got a story," he said. "It just depends on how you end it. So I'm going to end mine the right way."
Individuals are identified in this story by full names, partial names, or nicknames, at their request. Photographs are published with permission of those pictured.