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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Nally of Micro Diner and The Other Place knew she wanted to change but didn’t have the confidence or self-worth to do it. So she went to beauty school. “I didn’t care if I ever cut hair a day in my life. I just wanted to do something and complete it. Before that, as soon as the newness wore off, I’d quit,” she says.
Nally finished beauty school, got her first credit card and set out to work. But somehow the culinary bug caught her — even though she admits she doesn’t like to cook — and she decided to open a diner. Banks turned her down for loans, but the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh (URA) believed in her enough to give her a loan for $29,000; she paid the five-year loan back in two years. More important, she says, friends saw Nally’s life turning around. “People came out of the woodwork to support me,” she says.
That includes both financial support — a childhood friend would eventually purchase the building; she and Nally now are 50/50 partners — as well as friends who could teach her accounting, back-of-house management, business planning and other skills necessary for restaurant operations.
“I put myself around people who knew more than me. And I listened, just like I did in recovery,” she says.
Now, Nally is the person with the opportunity to turn people’s lives around. Most of the people she hires are from Renewal.
“It doesn’t work out with everybody, but I always give them a chance. Addicts are the best workers when they are clean,” she says. “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.”
Julius Drake, 45, also restarted his life. He is the supervisor of Buford’s Kitchen Downtown, where he oversees up to eight people who prepare and cook for the Southern-themed restaurant. He’s been there for a year and prior to that worked in a handful of other restaurants.
It’s a far cry from his previous life. “Oh you name it, and I did it. I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of,” he says.
Drake started cooking while incarcerated and hooked up with Community Kitchen Pittsburgh in 2014 as part of a re-entry program from Allegheny County Jail. He says he keeps in touch with many in his cohort; all are working in the culinary field.
“It helped save my life,” he says. “I tried other times to turn my life around but didn’t have anything to look forward to. This time I have something positive to do fresh out of jail, and so I didn’t fall back on my previous behavior.”
“This has saved my life,” says Shimica, the Community Kitchen Pittsburgh client who cooked bread pudding in September.
She graduated from the program in December and now is clearing some final bureaucratic hurdles in order to land a job. Scott, who graduated in November, now is earning $12.50 an hour working full-time for a local catering company.
A few weeks after preparing his gumbo, Mike stopped showing up for training at Community Kitchen Pittsburgh. He relapsed, and despite the efforts of Flanagan and her staff, they have lost track of him. Even in the best Catalyst Kitchen programs, and Community Kitchen Pittsburgh ranks among those, up to 25 percent of participants don’t make it through.
The program doesn’t give up when there are setbacks though. Shakeya spent the autumn jumping through hurdles in her personal life, pushing back her expected graduation date a few months. She is on-track to complete the cirriculum and currently is interviewing for jobs.
“The hopelessness and desperation I was feeling three years ago was overwhelming. And now to be safe and sound, and take care of a family, that’s beyond my vocabulary,” says Gaston of Buford’s Kitchen.
“You get such a bad rap [when you’re a person in recovery],” Nally says. “But, over time, that changes. It’s about following directions and believing you are worthy. And we are all worthy.”