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On The Menu At Café Momentum: Hope -- And Maybe A Job -- For Juvenile Offenders

Café Momentum has some of the hardest tables to book in Dallas. The once-a-month pop-up dinners sell out fast at $100 a plate. They’re held at hot restaurants around the city. They feature gourmet menus, top-notch table service and high-profile chefs who work side-by-side with eight kids who provide an unexpected twist: All eight are incarcerated at a Dallas County juvenile detention center.

As restaurant guests start to quiet down, Janice Provost, co-founder of Café Momentum, stands proudly near the front doors wearing a bright pink chef’s coat and an equally bright smile.

“Welcome to Café Momentum, our 14th dinner!” she says.

Every one of those 14 dinners has sold out. This one was at CampO, an Oak Cliff restaurant that’s now known as Outpost American Tavern. The young men cooking and serving the dinner have recently completed a four-week culinary class at Dallas County’s Youth Village juvenile detention center. The center houses non-violent juvenile offenders age 13 to 17. This group has been looking forward to tonight. It’s a chance to leave the detention center. And they’ll be paid $10 an hour.

The boys are nervous, excited, and working.

In CampO’s kitchen, a large fan cools down the small space where four chefs and four students from Youth Village are prepping food. A 17-year-old named Devontae is cutting small pickled gherkins for the first appetizer: pork cheek terrine with cornichon. It’s the first time he’s heard of a cornichon, but he likes it.

“It’s delicious, I like trying new things," he says. "I think this part is really simple – I mean, I could do this for a living, definitely.”

Devontae typifies the city’s juvenile detention center population. He’s 17, a minority, and poor. He’s in Youth Village for violating probation on a gun charge and for evading arrest.

Meet Leonardo Alvarez, who spent much of his youth, as he puts it, “dealing dope,” and that landed him in Dallas’ Youth Village. He’s been through the Café Momentum program. In this video he talks about his girlfriend’s pregnancy, his legal stumbles and his struggle to stay on the straight and narrow.                                      

These kids have committed serious crimes. They’re on a dangerous path that Chris Quadri knows and wants to reverse.  Quadri is the executive director for Youth Village Resources, the nonprofit organization that pays for the culinary class that leads to Café Momentum.

“I spent seven years in a penitentiary for something I did when I was 19 years old, just older than these guys, many of these guys," Quadri says. "I was selling drugs and somebody tried to rob me and I defended myself and found myself in prison.”

Now 36 with a career and a wife, Quadri has left prison far behind and wants to show these kids they can do the same with their troubled past.

“They are not their mistake," he says. "They are not an action they may have made. They have this huge potential, and everybody for the last couple of years has treated them as that mistake. If we’re able to get them to forget that, to then focus on the good things in their life, then they become new people.”

Quadri says the first step to giving kids like Devontae a way out of crime and poverty is job training. And that training starts back at the Youth Village in the culinary program. It’s one of seven job skills classes offered at the detention center. The boys learn how to cook simple, healthy meals for $10 or less. Culinary arts director Charles Plummer runs the class. Today, he’s showing the group how to make vegetable quesadillas.

Plummer does not baby these kids. He talks them through every process from rinsing black beans to handling a knife. He watches the boys closely, and steps in when needed.

“Let me show you how to do that, man," Plummer says, grabbing a vegetable peeler. "You want to take long strokes.”

To work at Café Momentum, the kids must take this class. When they complete it, they’ll have skills for restaurant work and that could help get them a job when they’re released. Only the eight best students will be picked for Café Momentum.

A recent study found that 73 percent of kids who completed a class while serving time at Youth Village were employed a year after being released. Only 20 percent of offenders who didn’t take a class had jobs.

Co-founder Chad Houser says other data also supports Café Momentum’s success:

“When you look at … the state recidivism rate being 50 percent for juvenile offenders, and then astonishingly the young men that are completing these pre-release programs, the recidivism rate is 12 percent. That’s [a] 38 percent decrease. That’s enormous.”

Having a room full of people cheering you on at a Cafe Momentum dinner -- and a chance to forget about the crime that landed you in juvenile detention -- sounds pretty great, right? Sure, but some of the kids, like 16-year-old Eric, don’t trust that a group of total strangers is rooting for him to succeed.

Eric is working in the kitchen. And it’s almost time to rotate with the group waiting tables. But he doesn’t want to work the front of the house.

“Yeah, I want to stay back here," he says.  "I don’t want to go up there. I’m scared. You don’t even know them, they gonna be lookin’ at you like, ehhh.”

Eric gets a pep talk from Taurus, a Café Momentum graduate. Taurus served time in the Youth Village. He’s an example of how this program can work. He’s been working off and on. He returns tonight to mentor the kids.

“They don’t want to know what you done in the past," Taurus tells Eric. "They want to know what you gonna do in the future. It’s a proud moment. They all clap for you and stuff like that. I felt important. I felt real important.”

The folks behind Café Momentum hope that feeling of being important sticks, because as great as this one night is for the boys, the real-world challenges of poverty, broken families, and difficult choices are still there when they get out.