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“Each child out of the Dallas County Juvenile Department who enters the Café Momentum
program stays for a year’s paid internship, which includes employment, education, life skills, and
community and mental health services.

The statistics are stunning: while the State of Texas’ recidivism rate among juvenile delinquents
is 48.3 percent, the rate among Café Momentum participants is 15.2 percent.”

 

Who would ever have imagined that a high-end restaurant serving new American cuisine would be staffed by young men and women (chefs and servers) recently released from the Dallas County Juvenile Department? Chad Houser, that’s who. The founder, CEO, and executive chef of this extraordinary restaurant jokes, “Café Momentum is described as taking kids out of jail and teaching them to play with knives and fire.” 

How did this downtown Dallas restaurant ever happen? Chad’s story is inspiration enough. “I was born in Dallas, and as a kid, I was always fascinated with cooking,” he said. “Food was more than just eating.” He looks back to time spent at his grandparents’ house in Pleasant Grove, where his family would gather every Sunday night for supper. “That time was all about family,” he said. (He called me “Ma’am” throughout our entire interview. His family must have also been polite.) 

In the middle of his college education, he told his father, “Once I have graduated, I am going to try working in a restaurant.”  His father’s reply – “Just go to culinary school!” So, two years later, he had a degree in Food and Hospitality. His path was set, and nine years later, he found himself a chef and partner at Parigi Restaurant, the chic and popular Oak Lawn bistro. 

The Turning Point 

Then, the pivotal thing happened. He was ‘voluntold’ (not ‘volunteered’), he says, to teach eight young men out of the Juvenile Department to make ice cream at the Dallas Farmers Market. On the way, he had some definite preconceived misconceptions, he says. “Following that experience, I was ashamed. I had stereotyped those kids, and I was wrong. They were not what I had thought they were,” he said. “I was ashamed, because I had thought I was a better person.”   

Two days later, the same kids were competing against college culinary students, and one won the competition. When he won, he told Chad, “Sir, I just love to cook and put a smile on their faces.”  “That reminded me of Sunday suppers with my grandparents,” said Chad. 

He started to think about this young man’s story. He wanted to work at Wendy’s or Chili’s, and he wouldn’t make it. His life was not going to change. “I realized our lives are dictated by choices made before we were ever born. I had never done anything to earn my position in life,” he said. “And, I thought, if that is the way the world works, I don’t want to live in that world. I can accept it, work in it as it is—or I can try to make a change.” 

He started to volunteer and spend time with juvenile delinquents. “They were telling me that they were seeking consistency and stability. I thought, how can I create a helpful environment for them?”   

This eventually led to Café Momentum, but his path wasn’t easy. “The non-profit concept of such a restaurant didn’t go over well,” he said. “People would say to me, ‘What are you going to do when kids start stabbing themselves in the kitchen? They don’t want to work, and they can’t cook your food.’”  Society was telling these children, “This is who you are,” he said. If they are constantly told this, they will never have the opportunity to break out of that image. 

Breaking the Stereotype 

As a way to break the stereotype, Chad launched a series of pop-up dinners beginning June 2011. One Sunday a month, he took these juveniles into a top restaurant after it closed to cook and serve a four-course, private dinner. The Juvenile Department would drop them off for two hours’ training – that’s all. He sold tickets. The first dinner sold out in less than 24 hours, and all who attended said, “This could be my son.”  The stereotype was broken.  

“A year into doing monthly pop-ups, I sat down with Parigi’s co-owner Janice Provost and said that it was time I sell my part of the ownership and go full-time with Café Momentum,” said Chad. “It was time to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.” 

That was ten years ago, and Café Momentum is going strong. Each child out of the Dallas County Juvenile Department who enters the Café Momentum program stays for a year’s paid internship, which includes employment, education, life skills, and case management and mental health services. The statistics are stunning: while the State of Texas’ recidivism rate is 48.3 percent, the rate among Café Momentum participants is 15.2 percent.  

Two examples out of many reveal the power of Café Momentum. One young man, who completed the program in April 2016, became the first-ever, high school graduate of his family. He attended Richland College and won an award from NASA as a summer intern. Now, he is obtaining a degree from the University of Texas at Arlington to prepare him to pursue a career with NASA. 

Another young lady was homeless at the time she came to Café Momentum and had no family support. She later graduated magna cum laude at El Centro and is now a medical assistant at Children’s Medical Center of Dallas. 

Not just inspirational, Chad. Life-changing. 

– Linda Faulkner Johnston – The Tradition 

For more information, see www.cafemomentum.org. 

Café Momentum: Open Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 9:00 p.m. 

1510 Pacific Avenue, Dallas, Texas 75201 

“Each child out of the Dallas County Juvenile Department who enters the Café Momentum program stays for a year’s paid internship, which includes employment, education, life skills, and community and mental health services. 

The statistics are stunning: while the State of Texas’ recidivism rate among juvenile delinquents is 48.3 percent, the rate among Café Momentum participants is 15.2 percent.”

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