Jonathan Cayol was not your average drug dealer. In his early 20s, he hustled to make money any way he could, and eventually started cooking and selling crack from his Greenway apartment. But that wasn’t the only type of cooking he did.
“We were also eating, and eating really good,” he says. The television was always tuned to the Food Network. In fact, Cayol says he and his brother would do drug deals at the front door while Rachael Ray’s 30 Minute Meals (his brother’s favorite show) aired in the background. “We loved to cook. We shopped at Whole Foods, and we ate aged cheese, fancy cheese, and weird things, like bison meat.”
Looking back, Cayol says his love for food helped move him beyond drug dealing—a life that put him in jail several times, including a one-year sentence for a weapons charge inside a medium-security federal prison in New Jersey.
As a drug dealer, Cayol says he earned about $1,000 a day selling crack. But by the time he was 25 years old, a prophecy from a church minister and a new job opportunity would lead him on a path back to the kitchen.
Cayol, now 33, is one of the many graduates to come out of D.C. Central Kitchen’s culinary job training program, which focuses on turning unemployed men and women (including former prisoners) into cooks. The program has a strong track record: In 2014, DCCK graduated 96 students with a 93 percent job placement rate and an average salary of $11.14 per hour. This month, the program will graduate its 100th class.
Cayol’s story isn’t that uncommon. If you go past the white tablecloths, you’ll hear plenty of stories about transformation and redemption in restaurant kitchens.
Today, about 7,500 D.C. residents convicted of a crime are being held in either a federal or D.C. Department of Correction facility. And, unlike the 50 states, the District’s prison population largely resides in federal prisons scattered throughout the country. The distance from home can make it challenging for returning citizens, says Deborah Golden, director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee’s D.C. Prisoners’ Project.
“The big thing is that the D.C. prison population is so far away. Not just physically, but when it comes to reentry opportunities too. This city has changed in 10 years, and if you’ve been away, it’s a completely different place. It can be really hard to break into the local economy.”
In addition to the distance, Golden says the federal parole system is stricter than most states, making it easy for returning citizens to violate on a technical offense.
“If you forgot to take a urine test, don’t notify your parole officer of a new job, or work in an industry where the hours don’t accommodate things like drug therapy, you can easily violate.”
But for people exiting the prison system, the restaurant industry has a long history of giving second chances. In fact, at almost any point in the day, there might be an ex-con helping prepare your meal. Here are just a few.
8 a.m., DCity Smokehouse
Shawn McWhirter is coming off the overnight shift at one of the most popular barbecue restaurants in D.C. Since midnight, he’s been checking the smokers out back and prepping sides like greens and beans for the day’s service.
McWhirter is the sous chef at DCity Smokehouse, and the mastermind behind the pork belly and turkey sandwich known as the Meaty Palmer (named the best sandwich of 2014 by Washington City Paper). McWhirter also has a criminal record that’s put him in jail six times. His crimes ranged from possession of marijuana to breaking and entering, and he says without family and a job, it would have been tough to turn his life around.
Inside the DCity Smokehouse kitchen, the work can sometimes be lonely. McWhirter is the only one working the overnight shift, but cooking is his passion, he says, along with music. He plays a mix of hip-hop and R&B that greets pitmaster and co-owner Rob Sonderman at the start of the morning shift.
Sonderman met McWhirter more than five years ago while working at Hill Country Barbecue in Penn Quarter. At the time, McWhirter was still on parole for an aggravated assault charge. Texas barbecue and country music was new territory for McWhirter, but his kitchen team—the “brisket squad”—kept him focused on cooking. Then, a year ago, he followed Sonderman to DCity Smokehouse.
When he was younger, McWhirter’s grandmother and aunt largely kept watch over him. They taught him how to cook, and he worked for his mother when she managed a local McDonald’s. “Cooking was always an outlet for me. That’s the reason I can get out of bed in the morning,” he says.
Now, after seven years of cooking barbecue, the 38-year-old says he’s off parole, raising four children, and balancing the demands of the restaurant. “One thing that I’ve learned both as a parent and a chef, it’s to be nosy about what others are doing,” he says with a laugh.
3 p.m., Central
The lunch rush is dying down at Michel Richard’s American bistro Central, and William Shorter is finishing up at the fry station. Three months ago, he was a culinary student, learning how to julienne onions and create a basic roux. Now, he works on the line serving fried softshell crab and calamari.
“I never cooked a day in my life before I got to D.C. Central Kitchen,” Shorter says. “But somehow I figured it out really quick. [Central] Chef David [Deshaies] can be tough, but already he has taught me a lot.”
“Frustrating” is how Shorter describes life after prison. His second-degree assault charge prevented him from getting a $19 per hour managerial position at Safeway. Then, there were the job applications that went unanswered. “In my mind, I had the kitchen training and knew what I wanted to do,” he says. “So to hear a ‘yes, you’re hired’ was just amazing. Central took a chance on me.”
According to Alex Moore, chief development officer at DCCK and author of the book The Food Fighters, it takes about three years to ensure that a returning citizen will not recidivate. First, you have to deal with the underlying drivers of the problem, he says: behavior, housing, work, and family relationships. For someone like Shorter, who has a full-time job with stable hours and the support of his family, his chances for success are far greater. He says, without hesitation, that he wants to be an executive chef with his own restaurant soon.
Shorter also has a few friends in high places. As part of the 99th graduating class at DCCK, he worked at chef Tim Ma’s Water & Wall for a few weeks this spring. In the small kitchen of about eight, he did prep work and manned the dessert station. When Ma was down a line cook earlier this year, he went searching for Shorter, only to find that he was at Central.
Still, what resonates with Ma is a simple thank you note that Shorter wrote. Part of it reads, “I understand you’re a very busy man chef, but I just wanted to take the time to say thank you.”
Ma keeps the card in his office.
10 p.m., Union Kitchen
Will Avila’s day is just starting at Union Kitchen. He calls his upstart kitchen cleaning company, Clean Decisions, a “brotherhood,” and his team of six will work until 2 a.m. scrubbing, scraping, and mopping a mess that comes from dozens of food entrepreneurs using the kitchen incubator space during the day. At just about midnight, there’s only one pastry chef left in the kitchen, dipping pretzel sticks into a pot of melted chocolate.
“Brotherhood” is also how Avila used to look at gang life. He grew up in Brightwood, the D.C. neighborhood just south of the Maryland border, and was surrounded by drugs, alcohol, and gang violence. At home, Avila’s family didn’t offer much protection from the outside world.
“My real family that I had at the time was the gang,” he says “The homies were the ones who were there for you.”
Avila entered the prison system as a 15-year-old and was in and out of jail four times. Two years ago, he says he locked himself up in a “personal prison”—a small one-bedroom apartment that rented for $650 per month in Petworth. He took a job as a dishwasher at the Chipotle in Tenleytown, earning about $9.50 an hour.
“Once I changed my environment, it started to change me,” he says. “But the kitchen wasn’t always easy. I’ve worked in construction. I’ve worked with my hands, but in this job, you have to deal with people. It was hard for me, because I can come off as distant.”
While at Chipotle, Avila rose quickly from dishwasher to kitchen manager in six months. Then, he went on to become a service manager at a busier downtown location. He was succeeding but not fulfilled.
“I kept juggling jobs, but I wanted to start something on my own,” he says. That’s when he met Graham McLaughlin, who he says was his first white friend. The pair got to know each other through a book club and writing workshop called Free Minds. McLaughlin, who works as a consultant for the Advisory Board Company, is a minority owner in Clean Decisions and helped Avila start the business in October. They’re also Capitol Hill roommates and run the company from their house with two-full time employees and a handful of apprentices. Their client roster includes food industry partners like One Eight Distilling, The Argonaut, and Blind Dog Cafe.
His employees have a bond that goes beyond a typical eight-hour workday. They share meals, workout routines, and even group therapy and meditation sessions.
“What we’re really trying to teach here is that in life you don’t have to be perfect, and we don’t expect you to be perfect,” Avila says. “This is dirty work, and we’re trying to show these guys how to put their best self forward.”
Photo of Jonathan Cayol by Darrow Montgomery