It’s Saturday, and Café Momentum chef Chad Houser arrives to his restaurant at 11 a.m., an hour before anyone else. Even though the restaurant’s family meal is still happening at 4 p.m., just a few hours later. But on Saturdays, Houser likes giving his staff breakfast, too — because it’s another chance to spend time together, and because he doesn’t know how long it’s been since they’ve last eaten.
That’s because at this restaurant, all of the employees are between ages 15 and 19, and have been recently released from Dallas County Juvenile Detention facilities. There’s no court mandate, no probation requirement. They opt to come or not come. But if they do, the plan is that they keep coming back for a period of 12 months — the duration of the culinary and life skills internship program that Houser built his restaurant upon.
“The juvenile justice industry term used to describe the kids we work with is 'throwaway,’ or ‘discarded,’ and when you’ve been discarded by everything in your life, it becomes a scarlet letter that you wear on your chest,” says Houser. “The biggest thing I want our kids to leave with is confidence, because that means they no longer believe what they’ve been told before — it means that they believe in themselves and their abilities, and that the sky is the limit.”
One moment prompted Houser to action back in 2008, when the chef volunteered to teach eight young men from one of the Dallas County Juvenile Detention facilities how to make ice cream for an upcoming farmers market competition. “I met these guys, and I realized in that moment that I had stereotyped them before I had ever even seen them — every one of them looked me in the eye when they spoke and called me ‘sir,’” recalls Houser. “I’ve been working in kitchens for about 20 years now and have been called a lot of names in a lot of languages in a lot of kitchens — and ‘sir’ has never been one of them.” When one of his students won the contest, Houser will never forget what followed.
“He came running up to me, knees bent, arms cocked in my face, screaming at the top of his lungs, ‘Sir! I just love to cook!’ And I screamed right back at him, every bit as loudly, ‘Sir! Me too!’” Houser recalls. “He said to me, ‘I just love to make food and give it to people and put a smile on their faces,’ and that really resonated with me — he could’ve said he liked cooking for any number of reasons, but the reason he gave spoke to his character.’”
After driving him back to the jail, Houser started thinking about the chances this individual had in pursuing the same restaurant career path that he had. “I knew what life would be like for him when he got out and went back to the same house on the same street in the same neighborhood, and that to overcome the barriers that were in place were huge — and I thought it wasn’t fair,” he says. “I said to myself, you can either complain about it, or you can do something about it — so I decided to do something.”
In January 2015, Houser opened Café Momentum, a restaurant in downtown Dallas with the mission of equipping at-risk youth with training and resources to help get them off the streets and onto a career path all while serving patrons hyper-seasonal New American fare in the process (think grilled shrimp with yuzu kosho pesto, Houski heirloom zucchini and fingerling potatoes, or octopus tiradito with toum, aji amarillo, and oil-cured olives).
A year-long internship leads individuals through pivotal roles of a restaurant’s operations, from dishwasher and prep cook to busser and server. The purpose, Houser notes, is to expose them to a variety of social, life, and work skills to help the interns discern their biggest strengths and interests while also gaining a broader perspective of the working world around them. When interns arrive at the restaurant, they meet with a case manager and supervisor to discuss their program milestones, in addition to personal needs like food, housing, and healthcare. “We want to create an ecosystem of support for the kids, and that starts with stabilization,” says Houser. “You won’t learn anything if you’re starving or if you don’t know where you’re going to sleep at night.”
They also address the long-term needs of interns, providing resources as far-ranging as family health care from Parkland Hospital and financial literacy training to parenting classes with First Three Years, housing with CitySquare, and a full ride at El Centro College, thanks to a partnership with Falcon Realty Advisors. At pre-shift family meals, they bring in guests to speak directly to those needs: Football player-turned-real estate whiz Terrence Maiden came recently to share his story from the streets to career success, and attorneys visit frequently to discuss legal rights in everything from parenting to scenarios like getting pulled over.
Upon completion of the program, the intern is assigned a mentor to help facilitate an externship with one of the restaurant’s employment partners, which right now includes the likes of local boutique hotels and big chain grocery stores and restaurants. Graduation is a goal that Houser envisions for every one of the interns — and this year there are 38 of them. Nearly 300 individuals have completed the program to date, and that doesn’t include the 172 kids Houser worked with for the 41 pop-up dinners he spearheaded around town before their brick-and-mortar opening.
When Houser planned those first pop-up dinners in 2011, the reaction was not what he was expecting — the racial and socioeconomic stereotypes quickly bubbled to the surface. “When I told people about the idea behind Café Momentum, the very first things a lot of them said were, ‘Those kids don’t want to work, they just want to collect a check,’ or, ‘Those kids have never been to a nice restaurant, they won’t be able to pronounce the names of your dishes,’” Houser says. Still, he was undeterred: He believed his plan was onto something. During that very first pop-up dinner in June of that year, those walls came down. “When diners left that evening, nearly every one of them looked at me with a sincere look on their faces and said something along the lines of, ‘That could be my kid,’” Houser recalls. “I knew right then that we had broken through those stereotypes.”
Those are the takeaways Houser and his team have been working to maintain within the restaurant today — a setting he finds particularly well-suited to the practice of coming together and seeing eye to eye. “Breaking bread together can be a wonderful harmonizer and equalizer, and in a country that is so divisive right now on everything, I’m really proud of the fact that this restaurant is not,” he notes. “When our kids are engaging with people from the community, they begin to look at themselves as a citizen of Dallas, and not just a citizen of their neighborhood — and that can be a very empowering feeling.”
Writer: Nicole Schnitzler
Creative Director: Cristina Cerullo
Senior Editor: Marcy Franklin
Design Director: Josh Laincz
Photographer: Misty Keasler