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Feature Fri Jun 18 2010

From Hopelessness to Inspiration

[This story was submitted by freelance journalist Charlotte Eriksen.]

Pearl Ramsey, 35
With some of his employees and students checking into a shelter after work each night, Café Too Executive Chef Sean Cunneen said he has to get them out by ten o'clock to ensure they have a bed.

A branch of Chicago's Inspiration Corporation employment services, Café Too is a 13-week job training program for those affected by employment obstacles such as homelessness and poverty. The program consists of four weeks of basic training at Inspiration Café (4554 N. Broadway) and a nine-week internship at the Café Too restaurant (4715 N. Sheridan).

Anthony Smith, 39With the exception of Cunneen, all of the other Café Too chefs have gone through the training program now train incoming interns. "We hire from within the program," Cunneen said. "Everyone that works in the restaurant is from the program," he said.

Cunneen says that Kim James has a "magic touch" with students. After her 2007 graduation, James, 40, immediately started a job as a breakfast chef. However, she remained a student. During James' Café Too internship, she applied for Inspiration Café's annual scholarship to Kendall College. When her laptop and journals were stolen, her name had to be withdrawn from the candidate pool.

"But then," she said, "the paper I wrote--the original paper--ended up getting into Kendall College's hands, in some way, and they called me and offered me a scholarship. Now I'm in my second year." James said she learned how to be a leader from Cunneen. "He lets you put yourself out there...and if it turns out right that's a good thing and if not, you can always start over," she said.

Kim James, 40James described her relationship with her students, "I listen to them really well and we have a good rapport with each other. I wouldn't ask them to do anything I wouldn't do myself...that's how we get along--they trust me."

Cunneen said that James is a major component of the trust-building and team morale at Café Too. "One of the places we have people from are battered women's shelters, and the kitchen has a culture of being aggressive, [and] very male-oriented...[so] if I'm in the kitchen and I'm directing people, some people will receive that very favorably, other people will push back."

"Getting the same sort of training from a black woman as opposed to a white man can sometimes ease things for people. The two of us presenting the same message allows people to start building trust," he said. "It [really] allows us to work people into a real, authentic restaurant culture...easing that transition from somebody's personal life to their professional life."

James shared a teaching point, "I always tell the students, 'cook with love,'" she said. Nobody likes angry food."

Melvin Bush, 44:
Melvin Bush has been in the restaurant industry for over 20 years. After serving in the U.S. military from 1985-1989, Bush worked as a sous chef at Gold Coast restaurants including Bella Lounge, Bin 36 and DisneyQuest. Then "I ran into some problems a couple years ago and I went to jail...I was in jail for two and a half years," he said. While in jail, Bush said his food sanitation license expired, "so I did this program to get it back."

"The people that work here are the best [whether it's training or personal] anything you might encounter, they can help you."

Terrence Levant, 43Terrence Levant, 43:
"Cafe Too: it's a family," he said. "Some people come in and they find their niche in life. But for me, I found my passion."

Levant's passion is not for cooking, but for servicing others, "I want to go into social services...get a degree in sociology." He said that when he saw how well Inspiration Cafe helped others, "it made me think, 'man, I want to be a part of that type of family'."

James, said Levant, taught him about teamwork and family the most. "It's not about you in this kitchen. It's what we do as a team," he said. "Your individuality will shine and it will show in your teamwork. Kim [James] stressed that a lot."

After his June 6 graduation, Levant wants to eventually educate young men and women, especially those who have dropped out of school. "When I was growing up there was the saying, 'it takes a village to raise a child,'" he said. "We have gotten so far away from that. These kids need mentors, and a safe haven from the streets, because it gets uglier and uglier as time goes on."

Vernon DuBose, 38:
When Vernon DuBose's restaurant was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, he returned to Chicago, his hometown. He worked with his uncle as an electrician until his cousin told him about Inspiration Cafe. DuBose compared the two occupations, "Cooking is like electricity...they're both hand and glove when it comes to being innovative."

DuBose, a father of four, said he's learned a lot of patience in his experience at Cafe Too. "There's a difference between patience with children than with adults," he said. In his southern drawl, he chuckled and added, "and then you know you have some adults that will act like children."

Ann Enloe, 38Ann Enloe, 38:
The earliest graduate working at Café Too is shift supervisor, Ann Enloe. Originally from Indiana, Enloe found Inspiration Café about eight years ago after she quit her job and became homeless. "[I] hooked up with Inspiration Café by a referral because I couldn't find a job...My self-esteem was completely down and ruined."

She added, "I wouldn't have hired me."

The low self-esteem didn't last. By the second week of class, Enloe said, "I was already working and had enough self-esteem to go get a job and finish the class."

After Enloe graduated she worked in catering for a few years, but returned to Café Too to teach and work.

Pearl Ramsey, 35:

Pearl Ramsey found out about Inspiration Cafe as a patient at the Chicago-Read mental health facility. With her passion in the field of performing arts, she is entertaining the idea of waitressing after she graduates from Café Too in June. "I never in my life thought I was going to go and be a waitress," she said. Ramsey, a graduate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagn said, "I started out in business and then started doing writing and directing and producing and had my own production company."

One of the greatest things she has taken from the Café Too program, Ramsey said, is the feeling of having a support system again. No support system, she said, "makes your future seem every's very daunting. I just felt overwhelmed with all I was trying to do in my life...Inspiration Corporation has allowed me to pick up the pieces."

She added, "Life sometimes brings you down a path you never thought you'd go down. Maybe you wouldn't have chosen it for yourself but it's inevitable."

Charlotte Eriksen

This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.

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Helen / June 18, 2010 1:19 PM

Café Too is actually located at 4715 N Sheridan, not Broadway.

amyc / June 19, 2010 8:53 AM

Cafe Too is a gem, and not just because of its mission. The food is delicious, the people are fantastic, and they cater! I love that place.

Lindsay M / June 20, 2010 6:13 PM

Cafe Too just hosted a gathering that I went to, and it was LOVELY! GO!

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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