October 11, 2017 Coffee & Company

Upstanders: Knives, Fire and Opportunity

Editor's noteThis is one of the episodes in the second season of Upstanders, a collection of short stories that asks what it means to have courage in today’s America. Produced by Howard Schultz and Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Upstanders help inspire us to be better citizens.


 

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The maître d’ flashes a party of three a toothy smile before escorting them to a wooden table in the middle of the dining room. Standing as straight as a soldier in his pressed black shirt, he hands out menus and informs them that a server will come over in a minute to share the night’s specials.

            “Welcome to Café Momentum,” he says.

            It is a routine that JeDarrian Jones pulls off with the finesse of a seasoned host, not a 16-year-old in his first night on the job. Not a kid who has been locked up four times in Dallas County’s juvenile detention center for robbery and other crimes. Not a ninth-grader who was shot in the shoulder a month earlier as he walked home from school.

            Not a kid who believes that if he weren’t serving that table, if he weren’t working at Café Momentum, “I’d probably be dead.”

            The three diners don’t know it yet, but the packed restaurant at which they’ve chosen to take their supper is all about defying expectations.

            Located in downtown Dallas, Café Momentum has built a citywide reputation for its farm-to-table modern American fare. One appetizer features toast points and two scoops of chèvre, one cultured from the milk of a goat named Ethel, the other from a goat named Lucy; diners are asked to pick their favorite. Chicken thighs are cold-smoked and brined before they are floured, fried, perched on collard greens and mashed potatoes, and topped with a homemade biscuit.

            When Café Momentum opened in 2015, Eater Dallas named it “Restaurant of the Year.” The Dallas Observer lauded it as the city’s “Best New Restaurant.” Even Leslie Brenner, the hard-to-please food critic at the Dallas Morning News, gave the place three stars, writing that the cooking was “inventive and precisely executed.”

            While food is the focus at Café Momentum, diners who flip over their menus can read the full story of Café Momentum.

            Jones isn’t the only member of the staff to have spent time behind bars. Most of them, save for a small team of mentors, have been incarcerated within the imposing concrete walls of the county’s juvenile jail. Almost all of them grew up in tough, drug-ridden neighborhoods, in broken homes, in failing schools.

            Now they’re in a new world. They’ve traded jumpsuits for black shirts and denim aprons. The rules, however, are as strict as those barked by a detention officer: Align the silverware with the bottom of each dinner plate. Polish fingerprints off the glasses. Dice the vegetables into uniform pieces. Sauté the fish long enough to cook the center, but not so long that it loses moisture.

            Café Momentum was conceived of by Chad Houser, an energetic, affable Texan who quit his job as chef and co-owner at one of the city’s most popular restaurants and risked his savings and reputation to pursue a dream of opening a restaurant staffed principally by former juvenile offenders who have served time for nonviolent crimes.

These young employees participate in a 12-month paid internship program where they do almost everything in the restaurant, from chopping and grilling in the kitchen, to serving and clearing dishes in the dining room.

            Although a number of restaurants across the nation provide opportunities to adults who have been released from prison, Café Momentum may be the only fine-dining restaurant to focus on giving once-troubled youth an opportunity to learn how to cook, serve, and get a well-paying job in the food-service industry.

            When Houser announced his intention to open Café Momentum, colleagues thought he had lost his mind.

            “I was literally told every single reason why it would fail, and it was a laundry list: The kids were going to stab each other in the kitchen. The kids don’t want to work. The kids just want to collect a check. The kids are going to sell drugs in the restaurant. They’re not gonna show up on time. They’re not gonna show up at all. They’ve never been into a nice restaurant. They don’t know what good food is,” Houser recalls. “A lot of racial undertones. A lot of educational undertones. You name it, there was not a single reason undiscovered as to why it would fail.”

            Houser was undaunted.

            “I was betting my entire career on taking kids out of jail,” he says, “and teaching them to play with knives and fire.”

xxx

Houser’s journey to creating Café Momentum began in 2008 when he accepted an invitation to teach eight young men at a juvenile detention center how to make ice cream. Their creations would be entered in a competition run by the Dallas Farmers Market Friends.

            Expectations were low, Houser’s included. He wanted his students to use at least one fruit and one herb in the cream base. Most had never eaten fresh fruit before. To them, raspberry was just a candy flavor. And tarragon was nothing more than lawn grass. “They thought I was punishing them,” he says.

            Before long, however, Houser realized he had stereotyped them based on the way they walked, talked and wore their pants. They looked Houser in the eye as they spoke. They all addressed him as “sir.”

            “In 20 years in kitchens, I’ve been called a lot of things in a lot of languages,” he says. “And in no language was it ever ‘sir.’”

            Two days after they made ice cream, the inmates served it at the farmers market competition, standing in their unkempt jail uniforms next to culinary students dressed in crisp white jackets. To Houser’s surprise − and the kids’ − one of the detainees won.

            After the announcement, the winner ran up to Houser, bent his knees, pumped his fists, and screamed at the top of his lungs, “Sir, I just love to cook!”

            “Sir, me too!” Houser screamed back.

            The student asked whether he should try to get a job at Wendy’s or Chili’s once he was released. “Whoever hires you first,” Houser said.

            As he drove home that evening, Houser ruminated on the young man’s future. He would be returning to the same street, the same house and the same neighborhood where he had gotten into trouble. “It wasn’t very realistic to think that he was gonna be able to work at Wendy’s or Chili’s,” Houser recalls.

            Somebody needs to step up and do something about this, he thought. It’s wrong. It’s not fair.

            Then another thought came into his head.

            Why am I waiting for somebody else to do something?

            The impulse to take action himself was tempered by the realization that he didn’t know anything about juvenile offenders or the justice system. So instead of leaping into the unknown, he opted to learn.

            By 2011, after taking a class on juvenile justice, volunteering at a detention center, and befriending the director of the facility, he was ready to take his first big step: a one-night, pop-up dinner within the walls of another restaurant. The meal would be prepared and served by eight juvenile offenders granted a furlough from jail. Houser wasn’t sure if anyone would come when he offered tickets for sale on PayPal, particularly because he stipulated that no alcohol would be served; if patrons wanted wine, they’d have to bring their own bottle.

          But word of mouth − among other chefs and members of his mother’s Bible study group − fueled enthusiasm. The tickets sold out within 24 hours.

            Sixty-eight people showed up for that first dinner. Fifteen minutes after the staff arrived, the fire alarm went off. But the evening eventually came together. “And 68 people, before they left, either shook my hand or gave me a hug and looked me right in the face and said, ‘You know, this could be my son,’” Houser says.

            He went on to host 41 more pop-up dinners, some of which sold out within 15 seconds. It was clear to Houser that he was onto something. He needed to make a bigger commitment, but opening a restaurant that would be staffed largely with kids from the detention center would entail a far greater financial risk than hosting a single dinner, where he was responsible only for the cost of ingredients.

            It would also involve walking away from a rarity in the restaurant world: a successful new eatery. At the time, Houser was the co-owner and chef of Parigi, a hot French-Italian restaurant in Dallas. Almost every night brought a full house, and he was enjoying uncommon financial success for a young restaurateur. Furthermore, he was a single father with a teenage daughter. If he took a leap, would he be able to help her pay for college? What about saving for his retirement?

            If he didn’t try, though, he feared he would see himself as a hypocrite. “If I didn’t walk the talk ... I’d never be able to forgive myself,” he says.

            He sold his interest in Parigi and set out to make the pop-ups permanent.

            “It wasn’t just a leap of faith. It was a blind leap of faith,” he says. “But I believed in these kids and I needed to prove it to them.”

xxx

Houser knew that he couldn’t open his restaurant on the traditional model. At a typical restaurant, new hires are expected to know how to cook and serve, underperformers are subjected to verbal tirades, and wages, particularly for bussers and dishwashers, are near the legal minimum. He knew the kids coming from juvenile detention would need a helping hand to reach their full potential.

            Most of those who had participated in the pop-up dinners lacked driver’s licenses and bank accounts. Many had not seen a doctor or dentist in years. And about two-thirds of them were technically homeless. Their bed was often a floor in the house of a friend or relative who was not their official legal guardian.

            Houser’s answer was to establish Café Momentum as a nonprofit organization that would provide robust wrap-around services to his interns. He hired sous chefs to train his aspiring cooks, and three social workers to help address the range of challenges the former inmates would face as they navigated post-jail life. To cover the cost of those services, he solicited donations from those who had attended the pop-up meals, offering them the chance to sponsor tables, chairs, and even the restrooms.

            Job seekers must first attend a 12-week orientation program that meets every Wednesday evening. Accountability is enforced: Candidates who are late or disruptive are not selected.

            The first tier of the yearlong internship involves prepping food, washing dishes and clearing tables − in exchange for $9 an hour plus free passes to take Dallas public transportation. (The federal minimum wage for food servers eligible for tips is $2.13 an hour.) In those initial months, the social workers help interns obtain government-issued identification, open bank accounts, and re-enroll in school.

            The interns’ salaries increase by one dollar an hour as they move to higher tiers of responsibility. They begin to serve patrons and cook in the hectic, cramped kitchen. Along the way, they take classes in parenting, financial literacy and driver’s education.

            “We knew that if we just focused on teaching them to cook or wait tables, we wouldn’t be successful,” Houser says. “We had to take a holistic approach to helping them transform their lives.”

            Some of his 17-year-old interns, who will go on to make between $700 and $1,000 a week, with health benefits and a 401(k) retirement plan, have become breadwinners for their families. “We are seeing kids who never thought they would make it through high school going on to college,” he says.

            Others become so enamored of restaurant life that they pursue careers in food service. Among those of whom Houser is most proud is Abisai Montes, who spent eight months in detention before coming to Café Momentum and completing the full internship program. He now works as a barback at a luxury Hilton hotel.

            “Chad set me on the right path,” Montes says. “If not for him, I would probably be incarcerated again.”

            In Texas, 48 percent of juvenile offenders wind up back in jail within 12 months. Since he began hosting his pop-up dinners, Houser has worked with more than 469 young men and women. The recidivism rate for them is 15 percent.

xxx

Dayton Swift, a tall, lanky 18-year-old from North Dallas, skillfully wields an eight-inch chef’s knife as he dices an onion into perfect quarter-inch cubes with a rapid tap-tap-tap. After transferring his handiwork into a metal prep bowl, he maneuvers through the kitchen with the poise of a veteran, inspecting a tray in the broiler and a strip steak on the grill.

            Three years ago, Swift became homeless. His destitute situation led him to commit petty thefts and, eventually, full-scale robberies. His high school years were spent not in school but in and out of jail.

            Referred to Café Momentum by his probation officer, Swift had never cooked before. He wasn’t sure he could learn, and he was apprehensive about his ability to make a fresh start among so many other former offenders.

            But he went through the motions. One night, as he was sautéing scallops at the fish station, he had a revelation.

            Dang, I love this, he thought. And he was good at it. Though he hadn’t once tasted scallops before starting work Café Momentum, he quickly learned how to cook them perfectly. As he did plenty of other dishes.

            “Even though I get burns and grease marks, and I can’t go a day without getting cut, I love being in the kitchen,” he says.

            The boss soon took note. “He’s a natural,” Houser says.

            And the fellow interns who once worried Swift? “It’s like a family here. I feel like I can have the worst day, and I can come in here and be crying and broke down in tears, and they can help lift me up and make me feel better.”

            That community extends beyond the kitchen. Many diners who know of the restaurant’s mission trek into the city from far-flung suburbs to support Houser’s project. But others, referred by hotel concierges or drawn by Café Momentum’s 4.7-star rating on Yelp, are unaware until they read the back of their menu or talk to one of the servers.

            The patrons on an average night are a cross-section of Dallas: white, black, Hispanic. Some are well off enough that they don’t bother to look at the bill. For others, their dinner is a rare indulgence. Yet all of them spend part of their evening doing the same thing: holding conversations with servers and bussers that are longer and more meaningful than they would have at other restaurants.

            “This restaurant supersedes all political lines, all racial lines, all economic lines,” Houser says. “People are coming in here, breaking bread, and getting to know each other. People who wouldn’t normally converse are talking. It’s building community from the inside out.”


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