For a guy who has a restaurant opening in a couple of weeks, Chad Houser is remarkably calm. In the run-up to the official opening on January 28, Houser's staff are putting together recently delivered bar stools, polishing silverware, and installing the custom-built chef's table.
The veteran chef of Dallas institutions like Parigi, Houser has launched many restaurants, but his current project, Café Momentum, is unlike any other eatery in the country. From the first day that his new restaurant opens in downtown Dallas, it will be staffed mostly by young men who have been incarcerated before reaching their 18th birthday.
"If someone gave me a gazillion dollars and told me I could hire anyone in the world, I would still hire these guys," says Houser. "These guys" refers to the program's 50 interns, all directed to Café Momentum through Dallas County Youth Village, a court-ordered residency program for juvenile, male non-violent offenders at high risk of reoffending. "These are the kids who have been discarded by society and the system," Houser says. "Guys who everyone has already written off."
Café Momentum was born several years ago after a friend of Houser's, a Youth Village employee, encouraged him to participate in an ice-cream fundraiser at the Dallas Farmer's Market.
"I walked in with these preconceived notions about what these kids were going to be like," says Houser. "And they blew those away. They were saying 'Yes, Chef' to me, and were just really excited about cooking."
The first of what became monthly pop-up dinners around Dallas took place in June 2011. Houser resigned from Parigi a year later to become the executive director and chef of Café Momentum, a nonprofit that's supported by foundations and private donors, as well as diners' checks. And although the pop-up events were regularly selling out, Houser wanted the project to have a permanent home.
More than one of the supervisors on staff has personal experience of incarceration, addiction, and other issues that the young men of Café Momentum face. Jason Hernandez came to the restaurant after being incarcerated in federal prison for over 20 years. He was convicted in the 1980s of possession of crack cocaine with intent to distribute under mandatory minimum sentencing laws. In 2013, Hernandez was one of eight federal inmates whose sentences were commuted by President Obama. Now he serves as the restaurant's Kitchen Intern Mentor.
After assembling his team of chefs, front-of-house managers, and in-house case workers, Houser picked a location that had advantages for both local diners and his staff. In the corner of downtown Dallas where Café Momentum will open, there are few restaurants to serve the many office and apartment buildings. Food trucks pull up in the streets during lunchtime, lines snaking around them. There is clearly a need for more dining options, one that Café Momentum is happy to fill.
The restaurant is also directly across from a major train station, making it easy for interns who use public transit to get there. While working, they'll continue to attend classes on life and job skills, along with counseling services. There are rules: If they show up late or smelling like cigarettes, they're not allowed to work until the next day.
Café Momentum will serve lunch and dinner, and may add retail sales of baked goods, preserves, and other creations from the kitchen. Beer and wine will be stored in locked cooler cases and served by a non-intern bartender. The food, while still chef-driven, will focus on the basics of technique.
Instead of a long menu of steaks cooked to precise temperatures, diners are more likely to find braised short ribs or beef braciole. "You can make delicious food that doesn't have to be a master work of art or skill. You don't need 15 steps to make a good plate," Houser says.
When the café opens, its interns will have a full-time job, making $10 an hour plus tips. Many are young fathers, and others help support parents and grandparents.
They'll be trained in five different responsibilities, from greeting guests to cooking food on the line. They will rotate through each station for 12-week stints to learn every component of running a restaurant. "I tell them all the time that this is their restaurant," says Houser. "I want them to take ownership and be proud of this place."
To illustrate his point, he calls over to Leo, a young man who is unwrapping boxes of glassware, and asks him how he feels about the opening. "I feel good," says Leo. "I feel good to know that I'm part of this."
Houser knows that many of the young men in his program will not go on to work in the restaurant industry, but he maintains that the experience is invaluable regardless. "The world would be a much better place if everyone had to work in a restaurant for a year," he says. "You learn how to network and build relationships with people. Maybe they’ll meet someone who can lead them to their passions."
In May, Houser hopes to expand the program to the girls serving time at the juvenile facility that will open in Dallas County later this year. But for now, he's just worried about passing that final fire inspection and getting the doors open.
Every few seconds, his eyes dart around the room, as if making mental notes on tasks to add to his to-do list. "I never thought it would come together this way, not in a million years. But here we are."