As CHEFS instructor Michael Schreiber drew the blade of his long chef’s knife along the surface of the well-oiled sharpening stone, the students of the class watched intently. Each student looks the part of a typical chef in training at an intensive culinary school, freshly smocked in crisp white, hair pulled back or covered, and attention focused on the instructor teaching complicated and precise cuts: brunoise, julienne, battonet.
They are the 39th class session of the CHEFS program at the Episcopal Community Services Center in San Francisco.
And, they have all recently been homeless.
There’s Rus, who always looks like he has a joke to tell. His curly dark gray hair sticks out from under the Giants cap he wears in place of a hair net.
Warren, 19, is small, with floppy chestnut hair and eyes as brightly blue as the Mediterranean sea, where he dreams of opening a restaurant one day—although maybe he will launch a cake decorating business instead. He’s lived in the transitional youth housing at Larkin Street Shelter since his ex kicked him out.
Debra Pittman, tall and lithe, wears her hair in a navy and white scarf wrapped around her head and keeps a serene businesslike look on her face during class. She is a 28-year-old single mother of two.
Then there’s Eric Clemons, 51, one of the group’s more experienced hands –both with restaurant work and homelessness. He watches Schreiber’s demonstration with his short-coifed afro neatly tucked under his hairnet. He knows that the path he and his classmates are trying to walk can be as sharp as the edge of that knife.
Clemons is easy to talk to, but mildly contradictory, easy going and relaxed with his knife, but slightly anxious and forgetful in conversation. Clemons happily tells his stories (with a couple pauses to ask what he’s supposed to say) while he maneuvers his chef’s knife. He creates little piles of potato cut into 1/8 inch cubes (brunoise), 1/8 inch by 1/8 inch by 2 ½ inch sticks (julienne), ¼ inch cubes (small dice), and all the other cuts Chef demonstrated. While Clemons talks, Schreiber walks up to the cutting board and holds up the battonet (1/4 inch by ¼ inch by 2 ½ inch) potato that Clemons has just cut.
“See,” Schreiber says, “It’s a square on the end. That’s right.” On cutting boards next to Clemons’, the cut potatoes are not quite so uniform.
With Clemons’ experience and skills, he could likely get a job in a restaurant without CHEFS, but there is something more. He is a little scattered. His stories tend to ramble, and he often forgets names. When he first came to apply for CHEFS, Sally Ray, the employment specialist for the program, recalls him being “a nervous wreck.”
“He kept being late with his paperwork, and you see, it wasn’t his fault, but he was afraid I wouldn’t let him in because of it,” explains Ray.
“Miss Sally” is not a hardened gatekeeper of CHEFS, but Clemons has reasons to be nervous. He knows how quickly you can fall or be pushed down when you’ve just taken your first step off the streets.
Born in Mississippi, the second child of a 15-year-old mother, Clemons spent his early years in the care of his grandmother, “Mama Sue.” Soft spoken and gentle, she taught him to put love into cooking and to feel the satisfaction of serving someone a meal he enjoys. When Clemons’ mother, loud and outspoken by nature, finished her education, she took him and his brother out of Mississippi to the Bay Area. He turned 7 the day he crossed into the Golden State.
As he grew up in San Francisco and Menlo Park, Clemons resented his mother and his multiple stepfathers and started, like many teenagers, to act out to spite her. In his teens, he began experimenting with marijuana and alcohol and started to get into trouble. He got his first restaurant job in high school.
In his twenties, he found work in the Silicon Valley’s emerging tech industry, where he says drugs and money were both readily available.
“I felt like I could afford cocaine, that I could handle it,” Clemons said. His problems, however, escalated and he soon found himself more trouble: DUIs, drinking, fights, and the “wrong kinda women.”
In 1995, he had his first serious clash with the law, sparking a one-year stint in Folsom prison and three years of parole. Through the rest of the nineties, Clemons was in and out of jail. Each time he’d get out, his old demons drugs, alcohol, and the wrong women caught him up again. He worked from time to time in nearly dozen restaurants, including The Oasis in Menlo Park.
Over the years, his own vices constantly pursued him, knocking him down whenever he seemed to be getting on track. After his last run in with the law in 2007, a judge put Clemons on parole and probation. He was determined to remain clean and get back on his feet for good. He managed to land a job and a place to stay with a mechanic he knew. He attended substance abuse meetings and kept his appointments with his parole officer. He was walking a thin line, determined not to lose his balance. Still, at this stage, it only takes the slightest push to fall.
One night last February, as he was riding his bicycle back from a meeting with his parole officer, Clemons ran a stop sign. A police officer stopped him, and Clemons explained he was on parole. He waited there while the cop tried to contact his parole officer. When she could not reach the officer, Eric heatedly asked why he was being held for such a minor violation.
Eventually the cops took him to Menlo Park Police Department, and put him “on hold.” They would later upgrade him to “resisting arrest,” a charge that still makes very little sense to Clemons.
Police held Clemons for 13 days , and, as a result, he lost his job and his place to stay. By the time his parole officer found him, he was depressed, using drugs and sleeping in a Jeep. He needed a place to stay. Most of all, he needed help to get back on his feet, and stay on them.
This is where the CHEFS program came in. Sandra Marilyn, executive director of the CHEFS program gets frustrated when people say homeless “can happen to anyone.”
“They’re wrong,” Marilyn said. According to her, it happens to people don’t have a place to go; don’t have a place to fall back upon. Many find themselves going through a revolving door process with shelters. Most homeless people need both support and training to gain employment and stability. CHEFS, in particular, takes a unique approach to skills training, capitalizing the city’s thriving restaurant industry, which provides jobs and guest chef instructors for the students.
San Francisco loves food. There’s roughly one restaurant for every 234 San Franciscans. (In New York, the ratio is one to 440). With every type of cuisine imaginable, from Pan Asian to fine-dining vegan, it’s safe to say San Francisco is a foodie Mecca. There are a lot of kitchens and the industry always seems to be hiring. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates restaurant jobs will increase by 8 percent between 2008 and 2018. Anyone with some experience or training in a kitchen should be able to find a steady job.
Chef Robert Helstrom, executive chef of Kuleto’s, a northern Italian fine dining restaurant near Union Square, says that he is “always looking for really good people.” Kuleto’s boasts a kitchen staff of about 60 employees, which, over the past few years, has included at least a dozen CHEFS interns and graduates. As one of the more advanced students, at CHEFS, Clemons wants to find a job in a place like Kuleto’s where quality is tantamount and the kitchen is bustling.
To make himself more attractive to employers like Helstrom, Clemons is trying to stick to a weekly routine. Along with CHEFS, he attends regular substance abuse meetings, talks with his case manager at his parolee rehabilitation center and leads his own group meetings with the other parolees he lives with.
Marilyn describes Clemons’ strategy as “regimentation,” which, “is a usual way that folks find to stay out of trouble. If they can throw themselves into a schedule, it can serve to take their minds off their problems for a time.”
Clemons still has some obstacles to overcome. He has only been the CHEFS program for six weeks and past experience has taught him how quickly things can change. But Ray sees Clemons’ progress. “He’s like a whole different personality. He’s friends with a lot of the people in his program. I think he’s confident now.”
Part of the CHEFS program requires each student to take command of the kitchen for a day, and plan a full menu. Clemons turn came this month, and he concocted a menu of chicken, shrimp and snow crab jambalaya, corn bread muffins, a vegetarian Indian curry and bananas foster for dessert. Sandy Garcia, the CHEFS assistant instructor, called the menu “wonderful, with just the right amount of flavors and textures.”
With praise like this, Clemons’ confidence is growing. The once-homeless man is finding himself feeling very much at home… in the kitchen.