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Spring 2006 | Volume 29, Number 2 | Features

Ingredients for Life

Culinary program offers homeless in Seattle a new start

The training never stops at FareStart, a unique restaurant in the heart of downtown Seattle. “Where’s table No. 1?” an instructor asks two servers-in-training dressed in neat black slacks and black shirts. The servers point, and the instructor continues. “Try to make eye contact and smile as customers come in,” she says. “Remember, you set the mood in the dining room.” The servers nod as the doors open for the weekday lunch crowd.

Daniel “Buck” James (left) and Ricky Williams never imagined careers in the culinary arts, but, thanks to FareStart, they have new options. James hopes to work in a Seattle-area industrial kitchen; Williams dreams of opening his own restaurant.

Since 1992, FareStart has been the turning point for thousands of souls once living on the brink. “Eighty-five percent of our graduates are employed in 30 days or less,” says Lillian Sherman Hochstein, development director and 1991 alumna of Seattle Pacific University. “Eighty percent of these graduates are still working at the same job a year later.”

Founded as Common Meals by Seattle chef David Lee, the organization first provided meals for area shelters. Soon, though, its reach broadened to teach culinary skills to the very people it had set out to feed. To date, more than 1,250 individuals — many of them once homeless — have graduated from its extensive 16-week training program. About 2,500 meals are served daily through FareStart’s restaurant, café, catering business, and contract services that deliver to shelters, schools, and day care centers.

Originally employed by Food Lifeline, a supplier to area food banks, Hochstein had met FareStart staff members and regularly ate in its Second Avenue restaurant. Impressed with the organization, she became an unofficial cheerleader, spreading the word about the program wherever she could. As FareStart expanded, its infrastructure also needed to grow, and, in 1999, Hochstein was hired as its first development director. “It’s one thing to give someone a sack of food and another to teach them how to be employable and self-sufficient,” she says.

" I came up against some adversity,” explains Daniel “Buck” James about a road rage incident that went too far. “I started doing some time in county jails and prison. When I got out, I took a step back and decided that instead of taking the left-hand fork, I’ll go right this time.” While working in the kitchen of an adult rehab center, he learned about Fare- Start and applied to the program.

Men and women who can show they have no income and have been sober for 30 days are eligible to apply. Cost to students is free, and in addition to comprehensive food-service training, students are provided a safe bed at night, transportation to and from work, and life-skills classes such as communication, teamwork, and setting and achieving goals. The kitchen courses cover everything from food preparation to menu planning and personal hygiene. During the first two weeks, everyone learns the same basic skills; then students can choose if they prefer to work in the dining room or the kitchen. “It’s like choosing your major,” explains Hochstein.

James worked in the kitchen, preparing the hot dishes served in the restaurant. One assignment — to create the next day’s restaurant special — allowed him to showcase a creative flare only hinted at by his tattoos and red-haired soul patch. That night, James planned the entrée: a crab and avocado omelet with home fries, and toast with orange-clover honey. It sold out.

With the real-world experience they gain, students like James have gone on to work at Seattle-area eateries such as Salty’s, The Metropolitan Grill, Dahlia Lounge, and SPU’s Gwinn Commons. “I’ve been hearing a lot out there that if FareStart says, ‘Take a look at this person,’ they do,” says James.

As students, James and others work with chef instructors in a modest-sized commercial kitchen, separated into two areas, one for the restaurant and one for contract services. “It’s a challenge,” says Dan Escobar, a 2004 Seattle Pacific graduate and chef instructor. “I’m not only responsible for getting meals out, but I have to make it educational. It’s tremendously rewarding to be a part of that.”

While a business major at SPU, Escobar also worked in restaurants, including Seattle’s popular Ray’s Boathouse. In his junior year, he received an assignment to participate in a group project for a business or organization, so he contacted FareStart. Outgrowing its facilities, the organization had begun a capital campaign to raise funds for a new building. Escobar’s team coordinated an open house for donors. A year later, he worked with SPU’s Career Development Center to find a business-related internship in the restaurant industry. He called Hochstein, who proposed an opportunity that was just right for him.

FareStart had taken aim at helping disadvantaged youth ages 14–21, many of whom, as runaways, end up on Seattle’s streets with little hope or prospects. A barista training program was being created in partnership with local agency Youth Care, and two FareStart cafés — one in the new Seattle Public Library and one in an office building — would provide on-the-job training. “I wrote the proposals and arranged for the permits for the coffee cart in the library,” says Escobar.

With his internship fulfilled, Escobar completed his Seattle Pacific studies and graduated. He continued working at Ray’s Boathouse and volunteering at FareStart. When a position as chef instructor at FareStart opened up, he didn’t think twice. Now teaching in the part of the kitchen dedicated to fulfilling the services contracted to shelters, day care centers, and other nonprofits, Escobar and his student crew prepare dinner for nearly 600 people a day. After the meals are loaded into a white van, he delivers them to six local homeless shelters.

Although FareStart provides tasty, nutritious nosh for thousands of people every day, much of its visibility comes from Thursday’s Guest Chef Night. Top Northwest chefs from renowned restaurants such as Canlis, Assaggio, La Spiga, and the Seattle Yacht Club work sideby- side with students nearing graduation. Together, they produce a mouth-watering meal for the make-sure-to-get-reservations event. “There are some chefs who drop everything to do this,” says Hochstein. Each Thursday’s wait staff is composed of volunteers from local companies and organizations. To date, the evenings have raised more than $1 million for the program.

With more than 40 percent of its $3 million annual operating budget coming from its food services, FareStart successes have attracted increasing attention from other cities. “I’ve led tours for people from all over the country and all over the world — including Russia, Japan, and Germany,” says Hochstein. When the Russians came, she adds, laughing, they couldn’t believe the program wasn’t government-run.

Two years ago, Boise, Idaho, became the first to replicate the FareStart model; it now has a student-operated store that sells 10,000 cookies a month. Programs similar to FareStart will begin soon in Tacoma, Washington; Portland, Oregon; and Amarillo, Texas.

Built on a myriad of successes, FareStart has outgrown its Second Avenue facility and will move into a 6,000-square-foot facility on the corner of Westlake and Seventh avenues next year. “We’ll have two separate kitchens — one for the restaurant and catering, and one for the contracts,” says Escobar. Adds Hochstein: “Our goal is to have a better teaching experience. We can double the number of students and double the business.” With 97 percent of its goal raised, FareStart’s current $8 million fundraising campaign is poised to make that happen.

Seattle Pacific senior Rachel Loucks-Emens discovered FareStart while on Urban Plunge, the University-sponsored program that gives students a personal experience of homelessness. A communication and political science major, Loucks-Emens and others in her group visited the restaurant while living on the streets. “This was the highlight of my Urban Plunge week,” she remembers. “It was like a divine appointment for me that I came here.”

She later contacted Hochstein to ask if she could apply for an internship. Today, she works in the development office, assisting with the campaign. “But Lillian [Hochstein] made sure I could also work in the student services office on the fourth floor,” she says. One of her duties is compiling student surveys, which ask students to evaluate how things are going for them at FareStart. “I came across so many good comments that I started crying,” says Loucks-Emens. Adds Hochstein: “I hear a lot of students say, ‘I feel like I finally have a family.’”

One such student is Ricky Williams, who was unprepared for the impact FareStart would have on his life. After moving from dead-end job to dead-end job in Southern California, he came to Seattle in the hopes of joining a fishing boat heading for Alaska. Then someone suggested he take FareStart’s 16-week program. “I was going to be here just until a boat came,” he admits. “But now I’m thinking I only have eight weeks left and I don’t want to go.” In addition to the culinary skills he’s learned, he says that the life-skills classes changed his view of the future. “The team concept has really come out for me,” he explains. “The line [in the kitchen] and the servers, we’re all a team. We’re like family.”

Williams has also turned his sights from joining a fishing boat crew to applying for a three-year internship with the American Culinary Federation. “FareStart has given me the confidence that now I can go out and work with the best of them,” he says.

Originally from Arkansas, Williams plans to return to his home state someday and open a restaurant. With a grin, he says, “And if somebody comes to my restaurant and says they’ve been through the FareStart program, they’re hired.”


— By Hope McPherson
— PHOTOS BY mike siegel

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