This Program Is Giving Ex-Cons a New Life in Professional Kitchens
"These guys are just the sweetest guys in the world," says Justin Fertitta, the chef behind the Doe Fund's Chef-in-Training program. "They're trying to survive like anyone else."
All photos by the author.
"It was about as frozen as Alaska, so we had to do a little switcheroo," says Emanuel Silvia of the beef chuck that he and his partners, Jessica Vargas and Dennis Wilson, were given for today's stew assignment. Instead, Silvia, the evident class clown, Vargas and Wilson are mixing ground beef with eggs and breadcrumbs for an improvisational meatball main course. They will serve dinner to residents of the Doe Fund's housing facility in Bedford-Stuyvesant (one of four locations in New York).
They are three of eight students enrolled in Doe's eight-week Chef-in-Training program. The Fund aims to reduce homelessness, incarceration, and recidivism rates through training programs and educational opportunities that lead to employment. Many New Yorkers know the Doe Fund from their fleet of blue-clad street cleaners. But few are aware that the pupils of the Fund's Chef-in-Training program—whose pasts include grand larceny, drug addiction, and jail time—will staff some of the city's restaurant kitchens, like The Shakespeare at the William Hotel and Pondicheri in Flatiron.
Chef-in-Training began in late 2015 when Justin Fertitta, a gentle giant with curly black hair and wire-frame glasses, signed on. The chef, formerly of Aquavit and Five Leaves in Greenpoint, designed his curriculum "to feed the residents into the culinary world in New York," he says.
Today, in their second week, the students are divided into groups for dinner service. Roland Shaw is on beet salad with oranges, arugula, shaved ricotta salata, and a vinaigrette. Fertitta has tasked Manuel "Manny" Rios and Iric Webster with a vichyssoise. There are three on the aforementioned meatballs. Victor Chetti and another student, who requested anonymity for this article, will finish the meal with an apple crumble—"simple shit," says Chetti.
Trainees answer Fertitta's commands with "yes, Chef," and they use guest check tickets common at restaurants to fire courses at mealtime. The mock professional setting allows unplanned situations to arise, organically providing opportunities for learning. Throughout the six-hour day they discuss what exactly is star anise, the similarities and differences between crème fraîche and sour cream, how to properly chop fresh thyme, and the necessity of mise en place—"If you don't have [that], you will fail," warns Fertitta.
Fertitta explains, "I try to express to my students not only the education, but the reason why. How [the system in place] was created and the reason why it still works today. That gives a lot more of an understanding." He justifies the militaristic environment of many kitchens.
Students view their placement in the rigorous program as a privilege. Chetti, a Brooklyn Italian who once owned a tattoo parlor, expresses that although there is no official application process to enroll in the program, "You have to earn it, to be here learning at this level."
Across the kitchen I hear Fertitta yell, "Manny! Every time I look over there you're chatting and not chopping!" He is firm but issues his discipline with a smile.
The pause is my fault. Rios, kind and prone to conversation, has halted his prep to show me pictures of his new apartment on his phone, scrolling through the images of his television and modern kitchen with pride. Rios and his wife were drug addicts for 19 years, and the former delivery man has multiple misdemeanors on his record. The couple are nine months sober. Rios says of their relationship, "We are enjoying each other for the first time. You'd have to kill me to start using again."
As a recovering alcoholic Fertitta can relate. He explains, "A lot of the students feel like they've been failed by their family and their system. I'm a firm believer in second or third chances because I've burned bridges in my career and my personal life to where I've had to humbly ask for a second chance. I try and make sure that the students know that just because you have a hiccup, where you mess up, it's not the end of the story. It's a learning experience."
One would guess that students' histories might cause tension in a kitchen. Fertitta says, "I did have some concerns initially. I was going to be in a kitchen with 15-plus knives with a bunch of convicts." Yet all of Fertitta's fears evaporated once the first course began. He says, "I think we all have these preconceived notions about that term, ['convicts']. But my experience has been quite the opposite. These guys are just the sweetest guys in the world. They're trying to survive like anyone else."
It is because these programs deal with food that they, and their graduates, are successful—the restaurant industry's hiring process being one reason. Fertitta says that the majority of head chefs "aren't concerned with anyone's background or what their story is. If you show up to work every day, and you can cook your ass off, you've got the job."
He likens restaurants to pirate ships. The pressure of the job ensures that conversation centers around the task at hand rather than the personal life of the coworker who dices onions too slowly. Although food businesses must check identification when hiring, they are not required to inquire into the ID's legitimacy. This look-the-other-way approach can result in wage discrimination for the undocumented, but it benefits the formerly incarcerated and homeless.
Experience in a kitchen imparts skills like time management, organization, an understanding of cause and effect, as well as the ability to handle pressure and work as team. Teamwork, particularly, is key. Fertitta stresses, "A kitchen is not about me, it's not about 'I.' It's about working as a team."
Yet the most valuable lesson Chef-in-Training instills is self-respect, confidence, and the belief in one's own agency. Fertitta urges his students to view access into a kitchen as part of a sustainable future, saying, "If the one thing that I can do is inspire them to start to see cooking not only as a job, but as a career, then I feel I've done somewhat of my job correctly."
As a result, many of the students have plans beyond Chef-in-Training. Webster hopes to go to college and own a business, starting small with a food truck. Chetti has plans to to take more trade classes with the Fund, avoid what he calls "shady people" and move to Florida. Rios wants to find a gig in the food industry and return to his hometown in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, to care for his mother.
The success stories of graduates provide a positive example and motivate current trainees. Patrick Watts is one such alum. The soft-spoken Guyana native served 18 years in prison and is on life parole. Watts cooks British fare at Shakespeare.
Watts describes his experience at Chef-in-Training as transformative. When asked if this surprised him, he replies, "The only thing that surprised me was I did really good. And I'm doing really, really, really good now."
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