How the Doe Fund’s Chef-in-Training Program gives formerly incarcerated people a path forward in NYC’s restaurant kitchens.
The United States faces an unprecedented and unparalleled crisis of incarceration. At 716 per 100,000 people, it has the world’s highest prison population rate, and while the U.S. population accounts for 4.4% of the global population in general, the nation’s approximately 2.24 million prisoners constitute around 22% of the global prison population. Furthermore, the impact of this pandemic lands disproportionately on poor people of color; although Black and Latino citizens make up 30% of the U.S. population, they represent 60% of the nation’s incarcerated population, while the median pre-incarceration income of men in prison is 52% lower than their non-incarcerated counterparts. Because of this large-scale criminalization, 65 million in the country have criminal records, and every year 600,000 people return home from prison to join the approximately 4.7 million still under direct supervision via parole or probation services. When they do, they must contend with the consequences of confinement—such as loss of wages, familial disruption, and damage to mental and physical health—but they must also face a new, compromised state of citizenship commonly called carceral citizenship.
This type of citizenship makes these individuals the target of around 45,000 laws that explicitly restrict their social and geographic mobility, excluding them from a variety of housing, employment, and health opportunities. These laws then converge with pre-existing disadvantages that increase the risk of incarceration, such as poverty, and with extra-legal post-release obstacles, such as rejection from individual employers and landlords. As the three most important factors in preventing formerly incarcerated people from recidivating are access to employment, housing, and medical/mental services, this state of carceral citizenship renders those returning home highly vulnerable to unemployment, homelessness, and eventual re-arrest. In fact, a 2015 survey by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights found that 76% of ex-prisoners reported that finding work after release was difficult or nearly impossible, with two thirds of respondents remaining unemployed or at least underemployed five years after their return home. Along the same lines, a strong link exists between incarceration and homelessness, with 25-50% of homeless individuals reporting a history of incarceration. The result of these incarceration-related factors is a humanitarian catastrophe and large-scale “revolving door that ejects individuals from the mainstream economy and shuffles them between prison cells and shelter beds.”
However, such a crisis has not gone unheeded by all, as organizations and individuals across the country have dedicated themselves to the hard work of trying to thwart this vicious cycle of poverty, imprisonment, and exclusion from legal economic and employment opportunities. One major organization involved in this fight is The Doe Fund, a nonprofit that supplies paid transitional work, housing, educational opportunities, social services, and career training to those dealing with histories of homelessness, incarceration, and substance abuse. The program started in 1985, after then garment executive George McDonald began handing out food and clothing to homeless individuals seeking refuge in Grand Central Terminal, including a regular recipient known only as “Mama” Doe. Although these people were grateful for his help, they expressed a greater need for access to safe shelter and employment so they could provide for themselves. On Christmas day of 1985, McDonald realized the profound urgency of this yearning after Mama died of pneumonia due to transit police kicking her out onto the freezing streets—still clutching a scarf he had once given her. This all-too-common tragedy convinced McDonald that a greater effort was necessary to target the root causes of homelessness: lack of opportunity, skills, and support.
Thus, the seeds of The Doe Fund were sown, and it soon expanded to address the needs of both the homeless and the formerly incarcerated—a natural progression considering the strong correlation between homelessness and prior imprisonment. Its launch marked the formation of the country’s first large-scale social enterprise, and it remains the largest residential reentry program in the nation for men released from incarceration. Since then, it has helped over 23,000 people transform their lives for the better, providing them with both transitional work and paid job training. In fact, Ready, Willing & Able, The Doe Fund’s 9-12 month skillset and self-succificency training program, is the country’s largest transitional work program. Throughout the experience, students receive education, personalized case management, and social services, and at the end of it, they are connected with employment opportunities and aided in applying for self-supported apartments.
In providing them with an array of resources—educational, social, occupational, and life skills-based—The Doe Fund takes a holistic approach in combating the root causes of homelessness and recidivism, and sees its participants as individuals with unique needs. Graduate Services Coordinator, John Powell, makes this clear in his attitude toward working with them, describing how “it all starts with a human relationship. You have to start a relationship from the beginning in order to build trust and learn about their lives. That’s what makes them want to come back and stay engaged.” With such a comprehensive yet personal approach toward helping people transition into mainstream society, the program addresses the three most important factors in reducing recidivism—employment, housing, and services. As such, it may not come as a surprise that independent studies have proven its effectiveness—graduates are 60% less likely to be convicted of a felony, while 78% of them remain employed when surveyed 6 months post-graduation. Overall, participants have earned $250 million for themselves as part of the program.
As such, it may not come as a surprise that independent studies have proven its effectiveness—graduates are 60% less likely to be convicted of a felony, while 78% of them remain employed when surveyed 6 months post-graduation.
While those who take part in Ready, Willing & Able end up succeeding in a variety of jobs, one of the program’s most popular tracks is its Culinary Arts training program. Participants who enter this track prepare elaborate meals each year in The Doe Fund’s advanced kitchen facilities, and they also work in The Doe Fund’s catering corps while studying for professional licenses in the culinary arts. Overall, it prepares students for careers in the exciting and high-potential restaurant industry—a field especially conducive to building or rebuilding one’s life after transitioning from homelessness or imprisonment. As Powell affirms, “the restaurant industry is about your skillset, not about your history or what you’ve done in the past”, noting that many restaurants don’t require job candidates to disclose their criminal record history even in jurisdictions where employers are free to do so.
As Powell affirms, “the restaurant industry is about your skillset, not about your history or what you’ve done in the past”, noting that many restaurants don’t require job candidates to disclose their criminal record history even in jurisdictions where employers are free to do so.
Justin Fertitta, a renowned chef who made a name for himself at venues like Aquavit and the Waldorf Astoria, echoes this sentiment about the field. “Restaurants are like pirate ships—every person I’ve ever worked with in a restaurant has had some crazy story or background,” he observes. “When I would be running restaurants, it wouldn’t matter to me your background, the color of your skin, how old you were, even how much experience you had—if you can show up on time and have the willingness to work: great, let’s go.” Such an open outlook, combined with his culinary expertise, put Fertitta in an ideal position to join the Culinary Arts program as the main force behind its Chef-in-Training subfocus, an 8-week, hands-on class that prepares students to work as a line cook in New York City restaurants. Not only does this training situate graduates in a viable position to find employment after graduating—NYC has a shortage of line cooks—but it also provides them with the skills to succeed and the potential to advance occupationally. As John Kirkland, Senior VP for Corporate and Workforce Development at The Doe Fund, explains: “Professionalism requires creativity, discipline, and organization, and these are precisely the qualities fostered when working in a restaurant.” Additionally, as Fertitta elaborates, “I’m actually helping these guys move on in their lives and pursue higher jobs”, emphasizing that “the one thing I try to get across to them is to not only think about this as a job, but as a career—that they can take this further, go where they want, and it’s up to them to really take that and run.” However, he doesn’t only do this job to help others, he also genuinely enjoys the work and the relationships he’s built with the students in his class; in addition to the excitement felt when introducing them to novel ingredients and techniques, Fertitta reiterates the joy he’s experienced as a result of adopting a personal approach toward program participants, similar to the one advocated by Powell. As he explains, “there have been moments where I’ve been able to connect with them and share my own stories to help them out. It’s one of those things I really enjoy about working with The Doe Fund.”
While these descriptions are encouraging, what about the students who actually complete the Ready, Willing & Able program, and especially the Chef-in-Training track—do they find the experience valuable and satisfying? Based on participant stories and Doe Fund data—filled with graduate success stories—it certainly seems that they do. For instance, Leroy, a Doe Fund graduate who was recently written about by Grub Street, asserts that he “didn’t have a purpose until Chef-in-Training—that changed everything.” While initially he saw his participation as nothing more than a way of keeping busy and staying out of trouble, it ultimately led to a passion for cooking and feeding people—one which his peers have cultivated as well. Although it’s a rigorous program that requires substantial cognitive and physical labor, many participants find it well worth the effort.
Dennis, for example, a Chef-in-Training student interviewed on the day of his graduation this past June, admits that even with certain challenges, such as sore feet at the end of the day, “certain joys of the experience allow me to forget about the pain of the experience. Sometimes I come here in the morning and I feel that joy within, that enthusiasm, which really makes me want to get down to work.” Always a fan of desserts, Dennis never had an interest in baking until he “learned to love it” at The Doe Fund. “I kept watching certain people bake things and I was like, ‘Wow, that looks good,” he relates, which eventually lead to a deep interest in the craft. Now, he impresses diners and coworkers alike, and is able to prepare his favorite dishes. “I’ve always loved cheesecake, and now I have the opportunity to actually make it.” Thus, when asked if he would recommend the program to others, he replied with an unequivocal yes: “It’s a real great experience. I woke up this morning, and I kind of felt sad that this was the last day of class, because I like to experience the challenges we go through. It molds you and makes you a better person.”
While the reviews from Leroy and Dennis are laudatory, they are not unique among Chef-in-Training participants and graduates. To illustrate, Iric, a classmate of Dennis’s, seconds his peer’s desire for the class to be even longer. According to him, part of the program’s appeal includes the open and invigorating attitude of Chef Fertitta: “The first week we got here,” Iric explains, “it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, you got selected to be here, now you need to pay attention,’ it was like, ‘Look, you got selected to be here, so have fun.” Part of this fun involved the huge amount of learning involved—a type of learning that went beyond basic cooking skills into fostering an appreciation for cooking as an artform. As Iric describes it, “I thought it was going to be like salt and pepper with chicken, but it was like thyme and rosemary.” Furthermore, although the culinary expertise he learned under the guidance of Fertitta will stay with him going forward, Iric cites communication as an additional skill he honed in the program. “We’re all from different areas, we haven’t all seen each other before and don’t know each other at first, but after a week or two, we realized we had to communicate. That’s when things started coming together. . . . We all just got feedback from each other.” He now looks forward to taking his advanced abilities out into the world at large, thus echoing Dennis, who says of the journey: “It’s not something that you can just do and then forget about. It’s something that sticks with you. I’m glad that what I learned in this program is going to stick with me.”
“It’s not something that you can just do and then forget about. It’s something that sticks with you. I’m glad that what I learned in this program is going to stick with me.”
So, not only does The Doe Fund provide formerly incarcerated people with the housing, work, and services so vital to their success in transitioning into mainstream society, but it also promotes passion and plants the seeds of sustainable and worthwhile professions. By focusing on especially conducive career fields such as the culinary industry, it creates gateways to opportunity for those who might otherwise be obstructed by forces such as discrimination, legal barriers, and a lack of resources. Although not the only program of its kind—the Leadership and Training Institute associated with Edwins in Cleveland and Kitchens for Good in San Diego, to name a view, facilitate similar instruction—the data on the number of formerly incarcerated people without employment or housing speaks to the dire need for more support. In a culture rife with stigma and obstruction toward those who have been imprisoned, it behooves more members of society to take the stance of Fertitta. As he puts it, “We’re all people. We’ve all made mistakes in our life. I know I have, I just haven’t been caught for a lot of them. The guys in this program are really striving to make their lives better, and that’s a lot more than what a lot of the general public can say.”
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