DALLAS — In 2007, Chad Houser bought into a popular bistro in Dallas, and his dream of being a top chef and restaurant owner was fulfilled.
“I remember the feeling I had was exhilaration,” he said. “I had done it.”
In his first year of ownership, Houser helped grow the business and was nominated by a local magazine as best up-and-coming chef in Dallas. Then something happened that changed the way he viewed success.
“I had an opportunity to go teach eight young men inside a Dallas County juvenile detention facility how to make ice cream for a competition,” he said.
In the young men, Houser saw raw talent, drive and enthusiasm. When one of the students won the entire competition, beating out culinary students and young professionals citywide, the young man told Houser he’d found his calling: He wanted to cook for a living.
Houser says that’s when reality set in.
In Texas, more than 40% of juveniles are reincarcerated within three years of release. Statistics told Houser that the young man, despite being gifted and passionate in culinary skills, had the odds stacked against him.
“I remember consciously thinking that the system is rigged based on choices that were made for him, not by him — the color of his skin; the part of town that he was born into; the schools that he had access to,” Houser said. “I thought, ‘If you’re not willing to do something yourself, then you’re being a hypocrite.’ And that was it for me.”
Houser began volunteering with the Dallas County Juvenile Department and, in 2011, started a culinary program to train young men caught up in the system. It started as a series of Sunday night pop-up dinners at a top eatery, where participants learned about restaurant management and trained to serve the evening meal.
As the pop-up dinners gained popularity, Houser’s vision grew.
In January 2015, he opened the doors to Café Momentum in downtown Dallas. The upscale restaurant and nonprofit incorporates a 12-month paid internship for young men and women coming out of Dallas County juvenile facilities.
Interns rotate through jobs at the restaurant, from cooking to dishwashing to serving, while also receiving educational support and career counseling.
Working with the local juvenile justice department, the group aims to help young people break the cycle of violence and crime that many of them have faced. Houser frequently accompanies youth to court appointments and offers enrichment opportunities and field trips.
Nearly 500 young people have participated in the program.
CNN’s Allie Torgan spoke with Houser about his work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.
CNN: What inspired you to start your program, and how did you get the word out?
Chad Houser: There were horrific and rampant stereotypes about my kids, and in order to raise awareness and break through the stereotypes, I started to host monthly pop-up dinners. The idea was very simple: Go into one of the top restaurants in Dallas on a Sunday night and sell tickets to a private dinner at that restaurant. We would bus in young men from one of the Dallas County juvenile detention facilities and teach them what it meant to work in a restaurant.
The first dinner, we didn’t think anybody would show up. I had a plan to call my mom and have her guilt the ladies in her Bible study class into buying tickets. But myself and another gentleman posted a link, and within 24 hours, we had sold 68 seats. That first dinner, 68 people, when they left, either shook my hand or gave me a hug. By December of 2011, we doubled the price and the dinner sold out in 15 minutes. And by spring of 2012, the dinners were selling out in 15 seconds.
CNN: You have groups of 20-30 kids coming through the paid internship every year. How do you keep them motivated?
Houser: Over the course of 12 months, they work their way through four tiers. Each tier is designed to increase their accountability — (to create a) solid foundation they can continue to build the rest of their lives on, even after they leave Café Momentum. For example, in tier one, the interns have to re-enroll in school. They also have to go get a physical, a dental exam and a vision exam.
Once an intern completes tier four and graduates our program, we invite them and their family to come in for dinner one night during normal dinner service, and we actually stop down the entire restaurant and acknowledge them so that they’re getting kind of a unique, individual honor. We’re not just celebrating them, but we are celebrating their family as well. Because it’s important that they all take pride in this accomplishment. This young person has completely changed the trajectory of their life.
CNN: You have a team tradition each night before meal service.
Houser: My kids come from households where they’ve witnessed domestic abuse, drug use; in some cases, they’ve witnessed murder.
Every day before dinner service, we sit down together and have dinner as a family. That’s not a concept that’s uncommon amongst all restaurants, but it takes on a very different purpose for us — and that is for most of our kids, that’s the first time that they’ve sat down and shared a meal together with a group that resembles a family. That’s why we call ourselves the Café Momentum Family because we want to sit down around the table and talk like a family does.
CNN: We’ve talked a lot about the nuts and bolts of the program — but what about the food?
Houser: Café Momentum is currently ranked as a third best restaurant in Dallas by Eater Dallas. The ranking of the restaurant is important to us, not because of my chef ego, but because it proves something very important, not just to the young men and the young women, but to our community as well — that these kids can and will rise to whatever level of expectation is set for them, as long as you give them the tools, resources, guidance, love, support and opportunity to get there.
I will do whatever is necessary to help ensure their success, whatever it takes for them to know that I unconditionally love them and will continue to support them and advocate for them, for the rest of their lives.
Want to get involved? Check out the Café Momentum website and see how to help.