By having a meal at FareStart Restaurant in downtown Seattle, “just in that act alone, you are part of the solution,” says Stephanie Schoo, marketing and communications director.
Albert is a line chef at The Battery, a private club and hotel in San Francisco that’s so exclusive, a hotel booking site recently described it as “that one cool spot that everyone is trying to get into.”
A soft-spoken man who counts having watched his mother cook as one of his inspirations, Albert is a graduate of the CHEFS culinary training program in San Francisco. Before that, he served a 25-year sentence at California’s Soledad State Prison.
Albert’s story may be remarkable, but the path he took is not unique. Over more than two decades, the Conquering Homelessness Through Employment in Food Services (CHEFS) program, operated by Episcopal Community Services (ECS) in San Francisco, has trained hundreds of food-service professionals, many of whom have gone on to work for the city’s top restaurants. CHEFS is one of scores of programs in the U.S. that use culinary education as a way to simultaneously address multiple challenges: homelessness, the need for employable skills, and the high demand for labor in the food-service industry.
“The restaurant and food-service industry is always looking for people who want to work and have skills,” said Jason Pruett, director of workforce development and social enterprise at ECS. “And they take people from all backgrounds.” In order to be eligible for the CHEFS program, which includes classroom and hands-on kitchen instruction in culinary skills and other supportive services, candidates must either be living on the streets, or in a shelter, or in transitional housing. In San Francisco — which ranked last year as having the highest median rent of any city in the world and also has a thriving food scene with more three- star Michelin-rated restaurants than any other U.S. city — “there’s a real need,” Pruett said, “for this type of work in this particular city.”
‘What Can I Do?’
In addition to providing training and a supportive pipeline to jobs, programs like CHEFS provide something more — an answer to the question, “What can I do to help alleviate homelessness?”
“There are a lot of people who want to do something,” said Stephanie Schoo, marketing and communications director for FareStart in Seattle, which in addition to offering culinary education programs, operates six restaurants in the Seattle area. “By having a meal at one of our locations, just in that act alone, you are part of the solution.”
Attendees enjoy drinks and conversation June 7, 2018, at Episcopal Community Services’ Chefs Gala in San Francisco. (Devlin Shand for Drew Altizer Photography)
FareStart’s roots in Seattle go back to 1988, when a chef named David Lee began cooking meals for the homeless and serving them out of the back of a pickup truck. In 1992, Lee reorganized the operation as a nonprofit, teaching those he was serving how to prepare food in order to equip them with job skills. FareStart students still work side by side with professionals, including at the FareStart Restaurant in downtown Seattle, which is within a few blocks of the Washington State Convention Center (WSCC) and offers weekly three-course, prix-fixe dinner menus created by a local guest chef. (In 2018, WSCC donated nearly 10,000 pounds of food to FareStart, helping to feed homeless people, people in hospice care, and people in transitional housing.)
FareStart also operates catering and event services — venues where FareStart has provided catering include a glass-blowing studio, the Seattle Sounders professional soccer team headquarters, and a whiskey distillery. FareStart offers multiple venues of its own for catered events, Schoo said, including space at its restaurants and at the Pacific Tower, where the 4,000-square-foot Panoramic Room offers views of the Cascade Mountains and the Puget Sound.
“And we’ve got good food,” Schoo said, an opinion vouched for in client testimonials on the FareStart website and backed up by catering menus that offer such inventive dishes as seared lemongrass salmon, short-rib polenta cups, green gazpacho shooters, chocolate ganache tarts, and mango cake.
The food has to be good: FareStart operates on a social enterprise model, earning about half of its annual budget from its food operations. FareStart CEO Angela Stowell, who joined the organization in 2018, opened 15 restaurants in the Seattle area with her husband, chef Ethan Stowell. Stowell was named “Best New Chef All Star” by Food & Wine in 2013.
Like the CHEFS program, FareStart offers support for students in addition to culinary training, including linking them with housing and other resources, offering classes on dealing with stress and working with others, and mental health, financial, and legal counseling.
“Many of the people who come through our programs have become disassociated from the larger community,” Schoo said. “The support system that others had when they were growing up didn’t exist for them.” As an organization, FareStart emphasizes a sense of community, Schoo added. “No one is here on their own.” It’s a formula that works: Within 90 days of graduating from the program, 90 percent of the trainees have landed jobs.
FareStart’s success — the organization was awarded the James Beard Foundation Humanitarian of the Year award in 2011 — has sparked numerous inquiries from others who want to create versions of the program in their own communities. Eight years ago, the nonprofit founded Catalyst Kitchens by FareStart as a way to share best practices, training tools, fundraising assistance, and other kinds of support to other social enterprise organizations providing culinary education. The network links 60 member programs around the country, from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Tucson, Arizona, to Burlington, Vermont.
Every two years, Catalyst Kitchens holds the CK2 National Summit, open both to members and non-members. Last year’s conference, held in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Sept. 5–8, included sessions on improving operations, teaching financial literacy skills to clients, and engaging the larger community around food issues.
Why food? There are many opportunities in fields other than food service, Catalyst Kitchens Director Renee Martin told a local Winston-Salem news station during the 2018 National Summit. “The big bet is that food service demand is increasing,” Martin said. “And we believe it’s a great second- chance employer space.”
More About CHEFS, Other Homelessness Efforts