Friday, May 24, 2024 May 24, 2024
77° F Dallas, TX

How Cafe Momentum Saves Juvenile Offenders

Chad Houser spares young people from a life of crime by getting them in the kitchen.
photography by Elizabeth Lavin

The Dallas County Youth Village, a sort of halfway house for boys age 10 to 17 who have a history of committing nonviolent crimes, sits on 53 acres of rural southern Dallas. Two chefs, Chad Houser and Janice Provost, got the idea to teach these young men skills they could use to land jobs in the restaurant business. Their program is called Cafe Momentum, which is also an itinerant pop-up restaurant staffed by the Youth Villagers.

The 15th Cafe Momentum dinner took place on October 7, the same day a cold front caught Dallas by surprise. By 6:15 pm that Saturday, bundled guests started settling down into the industrial metal chairs scattered inside Acme F&B. Eight boys from the Youth Village worked the room like they’d been doing it all their lives. The boys, dressed in professional chef coats, smiled as they carefully placed romaine salads with hearts of palm in front of each person. They said their “yes, ma’am”s and “yes, sir”s. People were impressed. For having spent only $100 on an elegant four-course meal, guests witnessed firsthand how their money went toward transforming the lives of youths who came from challenging backgrounds.

No one was more impressed by the scene than Byron Thompson, a juvenile probation officer. He earned his seat at the dinner by being the Dallas County Juvenile Department’s September employee of the month. Thompson stood up after eating the first course, walked over to Houser, and told the chef he couldn’t believe his eyes. Were these really the same boys he and his fellow probation officers had locked up?

“It blew his mind,” Houser says. “Everything he knew was flipped on its head. So I asked him if he would speak to the group between the second and third courses, and he did.”

Thompson nervously stood in front of the crowd of 75 guests. He has been in the juvenile department for 12 years, he said. And, as an assessment officer for the last five, he’s the one who reads these boys’ files, studies their psychiatric histories, and makes recommendations about whether they should be incarcerated. “But you know what I learned tonight?” he asked. “That I’m wrong.”

Before, Thompson had been so preoccupied with enforcing court-ordered sanctions—telling the kids they needed to go to school or go home by a certain time—that he neglected to see the big picture. What those boys needed, Thompson realized, was inspiration. Hope. Both are what Cafe Momentum offers. When Thompson finished speaking, he got a standing ovation, and as he walked back to his seat, someone at his table was wiping away tears. A vice president from 7-Eleven came over to the offi cer and asked him to be his guest at any future Cafe Momentum dinner.

Cafe Momentum was, at first, just an idea born out of a late-night phone call between Houser, a scruffy guy with a big heart, and Provost, his co-chef at the time. “Why not?” she said, when he presented her with the possibility of starting a restaurant where kids from the Youth Village could find a place to work post-release. To build a restaurant from scratch, Houser would need money. That’s where the monthly fundraiser dinners came in.

Every month since June 2011, eight boys from the Youth Village’s culinary program have worked alongside a rotating roster of Dallas chefs who teach them how to prep, cook, plate, and serve dishes. The boys learn everything from folding napkins properly to washing dirty plates. At the end of their training, they earn a food handler’s license and a list of contacts that could land them a serious job in the restaurant industry. Taurus is one such success story. After graduating from the Youth Village, Taurus found a position at Boulevardier, a French bistro in the Bishop Arts District, with the help of Cafe Momentum.

Houser, whom his girlfriend calls the “juvenile delinquent whisperer,” isn’t afraid to admit that his work is not always bright and shiny. It usually involves being a friend and mentor to teenage boys who face problems he couldn’t imagine experiencing as a 17-year-old.

“We’ve had everything from one of our young men getting murdered to another one of our young men being physically assaulted by his mother to one getting his girlfriend pregnant and finding out that his baby’s going to die,” Houser says. “That particular young man, we were together when he found out, and he buried his head in my shoulder, gripped me around the waist, and cried like a baby. And, you know, this is supposed to be some scary criminal.”

On September 1, Houser said goodbye to his day job as Parigi’s co-chef and co-owner to become the newly appointed executive director of Cafe Momentum. He figured it was time to immerse himself in the lives of his boys, who needed him more than Parigi did. Knowing that his boys are out there roaming the streets looking for jobs pushes Houser to build a brick-and-mortar version of Cafe Momentum, fast. His restaurant, he estimates, will employ 30 to 35 youths for a yearlong internship program. After Houser’s network of generous friends and volunteers helps him decide on a location easily accessible by the DART rail, the restaurant will function as a place of work where post-release boys can get back on their feet and avoid the lifestyle that landed them a bed at the Youth Village.

Cafe Momentum is meant to act as a launching pad for the boys’ careers in the restaurant industry. After 12 months of working in the kitchen, they should be in a far better position for employment. And if Houser and the rest of the Cafe Momentum crew do their job right, teaching these boys how to really cook, then the chef will one day be out of a job himself. He hopes.