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Second Chances: Crossroads in the Kitchen

People working to overcome substance abuse problems and ex-offenders discover a welcoming environment in restaurant kitchens.



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Heather Nally, 43, is taking a break at a table in The Other Diner, her 1,000-square-foot diner, which she opened in August in Arlington. This is Nally’s second restaurant; the first, also small, aptly is called Micro Diner, which she debuted in 2012. She serves simple fare at both spots — think eggs, sandwiches, burgers and salads — but the spaces also serve a higher purpose for Nally and most of her 14 employees. 

Nally struggled with addictions to crack and heroin and was incarcerated multiple times for robbery, forgery and fraud. She attempted to clean up her life by participating in the Program for Female Offenders in 2001 but relapsed. “Consequences. You just get tired. Tired of getting locked up. Tired of answering to so many people controlling your life. You get tired,” she says.

In 2007, while living in a halfway house in Butler, she had a spiritual epiphany and decided to change her life, this time with better results. 

“Negative behavior will lead you to hate yourself, which will lead you to want to numb yourself. It’s all behavior. The drugs are the last resort,” Nally says.

“But,” she adds, “anyone can change.”
 

Jobs in restaurant kitchens are physically demanding, the hours are difficult and the social bonding between staff members often includes late-night partying. Still, by providing a reliable income, a steady schedule and a sense of self-worth, a restaurant can be a gateway to stability for people who are transitioning from incarceration, recovering from substance abuse problems, and, in many cases, both.

For restaurant owners at establishments ranging from pint-sized kitchens such as Scratch Food & Beverage, a neighborhood restaurant serving thoughtful comfort food in Troy Hill, to the ever-expanding empire of the Richard DeShantz Restaurant Group, which runs some of Pittsburgh’s most visible and popular Downtown restaurants, vocational training and post-incarceration employment programs tap into a fresh labor force as rapid restaurant expansion in Pittsburgh translates into a shortage of employees. 

The restaurant industry is the region’s largest field of employment. According to a recent study published by market analytics company Emsi, there were 87,300 restaurant industry jobs available in 2016, and 25 percent of new jobs in Pittsburgh from 2010 to 2016 were in the restaurant industry. That number is expected to grow as the city expands. “Everyone I talk to is desperate for people to work in their kitchens,” says Jamilka Borges, executive chef of Spoon in East Liberty. 
 

“You get such a bad rap [when you’re a recovering addict]. But, over time, that changes. That person has to want to restart their life. That’s what it comes down to.”
Heather Nally

TRAINING GROUNDS
“I’ve never had a good job before. Now, I want to land a job that pays well. If you put your experiences of what you learn [here] together, you should be able to get that good job,” says Shimica, 41, a recovering addict currently on probation after serving a three-year sentence for criminal trespassing.   

She is one of four ex-offenders presenting a weekly showcase lunch prepared for invited guests assembled on a bright September afternoon in Community Kitchen Pittsburgh’s new two-floor facility in Hazelwood. Like Nally, they are part of a community of Pittsburgh-area residents who, because of addiction, incarceration and other circumstances, find themselves at a crossroads. 

Community Kitchen Pittsburgh, a food-focused vocational program that launched in 2013, is part of a national network of Catalyst Kitchen programs that have a shared goal of helping disenfranchised people rebuild their lives by training them in the culinary arts, as well as providing them with the heretofore-lacking tools to navigate the complexities of government and social infrastructure.

(All last names are withheld at the request of Community Kitchen Pittsburgh.)

Shimica serves bread pudding laced with spices. “I love to make people smile,” she says. “People know when you put your heart into it.”

Mike, 40, took the main course, a soulful gumbo straight out of Cajun country. “I’m loving this experience,” he says as colleagues and invited guests dig into their bowls. Scott, 38, and Shakeya, 23, round out the meal with an eggplant-bacon bake and a salad with homemade dressing.

“There are a lot of people who are ready and willing to work, but they have barriers [to employment] or nothing on their resumes. They need support and assistance to get over that,” says Community Kitchen Pittsburgh Executive Director Jennifer Flanagan.

If everything goes as intended, the four who presented in September will join the scores of graduates from 20-plus previous classes who now are working in the restaurant industry. With the assistance of Community Kitchen Pittsburgh staff, they’ll apply for jobs with one of the more than 80 partner organizations, working at restaurants such as Casbah, BRGR, Whitfield and Scratch Food & Beverage, and also in institutional kitchens such as Aramark, Carnegie Mellon University and various hospitals throughout the region.

“We’re targeting folks who are currently outside the economy, and we’re working to bring them back in,” Flanagan says. 

The core of Community Kitchen Pittsburgh’s programming is a 12-week, full-time and fully immersive culinary training program. The first two weeks are classroom learning about food safety and sanitation. After week one, participants earn a ServSafe food handler certification, an accreditation that allows them to work in Community Kitchen Pittsburgh’s commercial kitchen.

After that, it’s initial culinary training with Darryl “Chef D” Coaston, an early graduate of Community Kitchen Pittsburgh. Chef D teaches the basics — knife skills, measurements and how to work efficiently. Most participants begin that part of the training program with little or no formal cooking experience. 

“I’m really good at dicing and cutting. I caught on quickly. You need to make the right moves so that you don’t cut your fingers. But once you get a rhythm going you can move fast,” Shimica says, adding that she’s less enthusiastic about another fundamental kitchen duty that’s taught during Tier One — doing the dishes.
 


 

When participants are ready, they move to Tier Two — hands-on meal preparation. During this phase, the Community Kitchen Pittsburgh cohort prepares up to 1,500 meals per day for four Pittsburgh-area schools (Environmental Charter School, Urban Academy, Holy Family Academy and Urban Pathways Charter School), makes afterschool snacks and dinner for Propel Schools and three full-time shelters, as well as meals for seasonal accommodations in the winter. 

“This is the first time I’m cooking big meals every day. It’s challenging, but I’m loving this experience,” says Mike. But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy going. 

Nearly all Community Kitchen Pittsburgh participants are attending the program while dealing with significant personal and professional barriers. Community Kitchen Pittsburgh addresses those barriers with non-culinary education such as resume writing, interview skills and conflict-management solutions. Clients also are offered cognitive-behavioral therapy, and, prior to graduation, needs such as childcare during employment hours are taken into consideration. 

“We want people to leave feeling like they are part of a professional network and have the skills many of us take for granted,” Flanagan says. 
 

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