“I realized the moment I met them that I had completely stereotyped them,” recalls renowned Dallas chef Chad Houser on his experience teaching eight kids from a Dallas juvenile detention center how to make ice cream back in summer of 2007.
“I knew this immediately because I remember thinking they aren’t like I thought they would be the moment I met them.”
Houser, who was then on the board of Dallas Farmers Market Friends, was chosen to prepare the kids for an ice cream competition where they would be going up against college culinary students.
Prior to meeting the kids, Houser was convinced they would have no interest in cooking and would be less than engaged in the process, but they proved him wrong.
“They were very smart and incredible sponges. They were so enthusiastic about learning something new they could be proud of.
My running joke is all eight of them looked me in the eye and called me Sir. In 19 years of cooking I’ve been called a lot of things in a lot of kitchens in a lot of languages but never was it Sir!”
Two days later, they entered the competition and one of the young men walked away the winner beating 12 culinary students. Beaming with pride and joy the winner told Houser that he loved to make food and put a smile on people’s faces.
This significant experience was the catalyst for the launch of Houser’s nonprofit and mission-driven restaurant Café Momentum.
“I left there knowing that I couldn’t complain about why no one was helping these kids.
I remember thinking why am I blaming everyone else? I can do something and I’m not.”
The critically-acclaimed restaurant provides employment for released boys, girls, young men and women who previously served time at the Dallas County Youth Village. But providing these kids with a paycheck is only half the story.
Café Momentum offers non-violent juvenile offenders the tools to build a healthy life for themselves. The program consists of a 12-month internship where they will earn above the minimum wage in Dallas ($10/hour).
Interns will learn the ins and out of running a restaurant from assisting the Chef, waiting tables to washing dishes. And perhaps the most priceless and valuable element to this amazing restaurant model is the life-training each intern must undergo.
“They are learning basic life skills like, showing up to work on time, how to work with others, organization skills and social skills they get to practice in a real-life environment.”
The restaurant has case managers that focus on the interns’ basic urgent needs such as homelessness (60% of interns experience homelessness sometime during the internship) and healthcare through partnerships with a county hospital.
Every single intern and their families get free medical care and access to a primary doctor. They assist interns in getting a government issued ID, opening a bank account and learning how to maintain the account with financial literacy classes. They also get help with going back to school.
Café Momentum also pairs graduates with one of their employment partners. They graduated their first class in April. Success stories include that of one young man who worked his way through the program and was awarded a scholarship to a food and hospitality institute.
“He is 17-year-old working in a restaurant making $700 to $1,000 a week with full health benefits and a 401K.The juvenile industry term to describe these kids are ‘throw aways.’
They wear that scarlet letter on their chest every day that they are trash. I think it is criminal that we have children in this country that we treat this way.”
Before Café Momentum opened its doors and became a success, Houser says he was met with much opposition when searching for investors and donors. He had people repeatedly tell him these kids don’t want to work, they just want a paycheck, or that they don’t know anything else besides what they get on food stamps.
He was also asked, “What are you going to do when they start stabbing each other in the kitchen?” It was horrific, racist and classist, Houser recalls.
The hostile responses spurred him to introduce the program to diners through pop-up dinners.
The idea was to get 50 people to pay $50 to have a five-course meal by one of Dallas’s top Chefs with the help of eight interns. The pop-up was such a success it led to 41 more dinners.
“Statistically, 47% of the 172 interns we worked with during our pop-ups should have gone back to jail in Texas. Our rate was 12%.
Our mission means that we work to not just keeping them out of jail but giving them the platform to be the incredible people they can be.
Diners would tell me that these interns could be their son. We are breaking these stereotypes.”
Seventeen-year-old current intern Olivia Garrett credits Café Momentum with helping her prepare for motherhood with much support and a class in parenting skills.
“Café Momentum has impacted my life a lot mentally and physically. I was pregnant when I was working. I went through a hard time, no place to stay.
They found me a place. Before my son was here, they helped me with buying crib, pampers and preparing him to come into this world. This isn’t like any job I had before, It’s like a family here.”
In fact, the team eats a family style dinner together every day. For many of the interns it’s the only meal they’ll have all day.
Houser says the interns aren’t the only ones walking away with invaluable life lessons.
“It wasn’t about creating a program that could allow me to pat myself on the back. At the end of the day, I want them to say ‘I’m amazing!’ and not ‘Chad says I’m amazing.’
Every single night when the restaurant closes, each of these kids give me a hug and tell me they love me.
I can’t think of a more rewarding experience for any human being. They teach me about patience, perspective, integrity and true love.”