Second Chances Through Housing Works Internships

by Michael Lesser

When I was a kid, I often played by myself. I invented games, built and fixed things, and learned by trial and error. As I figured out how to do something, I imagined explaining my discoveries to someone who would be as excited about them as I was. My first teaching job didn’t go like that. My students, Gulf War veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, would get full of all the information I was trying to pump into their brains, hands, and muscles. They became frustrated and unable to keep up.

I wasn’t good at connecting with the students and often felt pressured to give them as much as I could in the precious short time we had together. Most of the students, more than 80%, moved on to high paying industrial jobs, which felt satisfying, but I rarely heard from them.

I made myself a promise that if I got the chance to teach again I would do it differently: slow down and get to know the students and find out what they wanted to know, notice how they best learned, and take the time to get to know each other.

When Free Food Harlem got an opportunity to be a partner of Housing Works, an NYC nonprofit who through their re-entry program helps men and women recently released from prison to transition back into their community, it felt like a second chance for me also.

For most participants this is their last chance after paying their dues and long prison sentences at the expense of the criminal justice system. The men and women participating in their program learn core skills that will give them a fighting chance to re-enter society, get jobs, have the support to make better choices in their lives, and stay out of prison.

I did not know any of this or what our association with Housing Works would lead to. What I did know, because of Free Food’s rapid expansion in Harlem, was that we needed more food and volunteers to feed the growing numbers of patrons lining up for the free farm-to-table, sit-down meals we served.

So, nearly three years later when I was asked to host the Housing Works retention ceremony at our venue, Refettorio Harlem, it was a big deal.

In just a few short years, the intern program has made a significant impact on Free Food and me personally. There were times when we were preparing 500-600 meals and it was just me and the interns. I relied on them not just for food production but in other ways that shaped and formed the kind of chef and leader I’ve become. They can feel when I’m stressed and tell me to slow down, relax. Their honesty in the moment, telling me what they can and can’t do is refreshing, challenging, and intimate. There is an immediacy, an aliveness in the kitchen that strips away the pretense, niceness, and personality that can be a barrier to the teamwork and connection needed to align and move together. During the six short weeks of their internship, it feels like they get to know me better than friends I’ve known for years.

Periodically, I get messages from former interns like this one:
“Just to let you know I have not forgotten you my friend. I still work for Fresh Direct and am waiting to go onto the truck department, but I am also doing good so far. Enjoying my freedom to the fullest Michael!!!”

Another time an intern missed his shift without any warning. Then on his next shift explained, “Chef, I’m really sorry. I messed up! I saw a kid getting beat up by a gang member and I tried to stop it. I did what I do and one thing led to another and I was arrested.”

We talked about how he cannot afford to indulge in that behavior anymore. We reframed his experience and he sees that his life path has led him to a place where the consequences of making bad decisions are so high that he must increase his awareness, be on his toes, and be his best self at all times.

I can relate to his situation after sabotaging careers, relationships with friends, lovers, family members by indulging in my own negative thoughts, fantasies, and expectations about how my life should be.

This intern has now gone on to become a lead at a prominent NYC restaurant: “They gave me the keys to the place! I would have thought nobody would trust me like that again.”

When another intern humbly thanked me for his meal, I explained the principle of circulation like a math equation and how important his part is. That the people with excess need a place to give and how necessary that cycle is.

He smiled with a mixture of pride and humility and said, “That’s pretty smart, Chef. Where did you learn that?”

The kitchen is a fresh start, a new meal, a different experience each time. We clean, chop, purée, sauté, bake, roast, keep it moving. But there is so much more happening than learning kitchen skills. We can all feel it. We become like family sharing the ups and down of life and seeing the best and worst in each other.

At the Housing Works retention ceremony, two of our interns received certificates for their participation in the re-entry program and work commitments prevented several others from receiving their awards. Seeing them on stage at the home for Free Food that they helped build was one of the most gratifying moments of my life.

Chef Michael brings with him a passion for the culinary arts, love of all types of food, and shares techniques to create memorable dining experiences for our Free Food patrons.

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