From Chef Coat to Suit
Recipe for reinvention: A high-end restaurant run by at-risk teens
As with so much that is good in the world, Cafe Momentum started with ice cream.
From that, it was a logical(ish) journey for one of Dallas’ most talented chefs to begin working with some of the area’s most at-risk young men, quit his job as chef-partner at one of the city’s most beloved restaurants, and start a new restaurant run by said at-risk young men.
This is just how Chad Houser rolls. But first, some background.
The seeds of an idea were planted
Houser, at the time of Parigi restaurant, was talking with Jerry Silhan, executive director of Youth Village Resources of Dallas. Youth Village works with 72 young men, ages 10-17, who are part of the juvenile justice system. Silhan asked Houser, who was then chairman of the board for Dallas Farmers Market Friends, if he could bring some of the boys from the Youth Village’s culinary program to an ice cream competition at the Farmers Market.
When a young man from the Youth Village won an ice cream contest at the Dallas Farmers Market, he told Chad Houser, who had taught him in the kitchen, that this was what he wanted to do for a living.
One problem: the boys didn’t know how to make ice cream.
Houser and Janice Provost (his partner in all things Parigi) thought it was a great idea. They taught eight young men from the Youth Village to make ice cream. The boys showed up at the Farmers Market and handed out samples of their ice cream. They competed with students from the culinary schools at the Art Institute of Dallas and El Centro College.
One of the young men from the Youth Village won for his cantaloupe, basil and berry recipe. He told Houser he thought this was what he wanted to do for a living.
Houser and Provost were hooked.
When they visited the Youth Village soon after, they didn’t find what they expected.
“These young men were just such incredible people,” says Houser, 36. “Smart, articulate, engaging — and they looked you in the eye when they spoke and walked in front of you and opened doors. They had a whole garden out back. We left with a bunch of okra and a lot of inspiration.”
But then the recession came
Houser and Provost started working with the boys through the Youth Village’s culinary program, one of many programs that teach the boys skills and try to tap into their passions. Silhan had created pre-release programs, reducing the recidivism of those leaving his program to 14 percent compared to the state average of 50 percent.
Houser and his partner, Janice Provost, came up with the idea of opening up a restaurant and letting these at-risk kids run it. The restaurant would be called Cafe Momentum.
Talking on the phone one night about the program, Houser and Provost came up with the idea of opening up a restaurant and letting the kids run it. The restaurant would be called Cafe Momentum.
Hitch: America’s recession.
Interim plan: Pop-up dinners — a moveable feast, choreographed by some of Dallas’ best-known chefs.
“One of the things so many people ask us is, ‘How do you know these guys can do this?’” Houser says. “They say, ‘They’ve never been to a nice restaurant, never done this, never done that, they’ve never, they’ve never, they’ve never.’
“It breaks my heart, because I think, ‘Great, just another person who doesn’t believe in them. Get in line behind their parents, their friends and everybody else.’ We decided in order to raise awareness of the project, to prove that these guys could do the job, to actually start raising money so we could start getting somewhere, we’d host the first pop-up dinner.”
And so they improvised — to prove the idea would work
The pop-up dinner idea was to connect a Dallas chef with eight young men from the Youth Village’s culinary program. The chef would plan the menu, and together they would prep, cook, plate and serve a four-course meal. Thirteen pop-up dinners later (the 14th is October 7 at Acme F&B, with chefs Jeana Johnson and Colleen O’Hare), it’s a well olive-oiled machine. The dinners always sell out. Quickly.
About a year ago, Houser and Provost were having another phone chat when Provost brought up the idea of her co-chef leaving the restaurant and working on Cafe Momentum full time. She wasn’t being a very smart business partner, she told him, but she was being a good friend.
“You have to put some skin in the game, and you have to put faith and belief in what you’re doing,” Houser says. That “skin” has included a crash course in starting up a nonprofit.
Did he worry about leaving a successful restaurant, a reliable salary? Of course.
“I’m potentially leaving a lot of money on the table, having ownership of this restaurant and opening up more restaurants, and I’m aware of that,” he says. “But you have to put some skin in the game, and you have to put faith and belief in what you’re doing.”
Houser’s last day at Parigi was at the end of August. So far, that “skin” has included a crash course in starting up a nonprofit. Although he is often the face of the organization these days, he gets tremendous support from the close-knit board.
On the path to bricks and mortar
Cafe Momentum has raised more than $260,000 in 14 months. The organization also has accumulated 300 plates and bowls and more than 400 wine glasses — procured through pop-up dinners, private events and Chefs for Farmers.
Houser is looking at locations, because donors seem to want more specifics before giving big. He hopes to have a location chosen shortly and the restaurant opened within the next year.
Once released, the young men who have completed the culinary program at the Youth Village — where they also receive their food handler’s license — will have the opportunity to work at the restaurant. In 2014, a young women’s facility, Letot Girls' Residential Treatment Center, will open, bringing girls into the program.
“This is combining everything that I’ve learned in the 15-plus years I’ve been cooking, and taking all of it and putting it together for a really good use,” Houser says. “I wake up at 6 or 6:30 am, and I can’t wait to get going and on my computer and lining up meetings and finding out answers to problems. Then, by the time everybody else wakes up, I get emails like one saying one of our kids just got a job at the Cheddar’s at Westmoreland and Hampton. It’s just so awesome.”
“This is what happens when somebody follows their passion and makes such a big change,” says Cafe Momentum supporter Jenny Birge. “[Chad] is teaching these young men.”
Jenny Birge, director of research and development at PepsiCo and a big fan of Cafe Momentum, was so taken by the concept she hosted her own pop-up dinner last fall, inviting 55 friends to taste, smell and see the concept for themselves. Birge works as a strategy coach, of sorts, mostly behind the scenes.
“This is what happens when somebody follows their passion and makes such a big change,” she says. “He’s teaching these young men, and he’s extended that with a different title.”
Taurus is one such young man. He graduated from the Youth Village culinary program and got a job at Boulevardier in the Bishop Arts District. After working his first Cafe Momentum dinner, he said to Houser: “This is the best night of my life.”
That reaction and result are what jazz Cannon Flowers, chairman of the board at Cafe Momentum and former CEO of Human Rights Initiative Inc., in Dallas.
“I’ve done human rights work for 15 years,” Flowers says. “One thing I’ve learned in doing that work is the identity of the individual is the most important thing. If you can give a child another identity, they’ll take it. If you don’t determine your identity, then society will.”
For many of these kids, society already has.
“These are the most highly at-risk kids you can find in the Metroplex,” Jerry Silhan says. “These kids are all survivors. They’re not really bad kids, nonviolent offenders. They’ve got really good bullshit detectors, and they can tell if you care about them.
“They know Chad’s heart is really in it. He doesn’t make a commitment to them that he doesn’t keep. Trust is a big issue with our kids. Most of the adults in their lives have abused that trust. They know Chad is for real.”