Cafe Momentum's Chad Houser Is "Cooking to Save Lives" (Interview)

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Not many chefs can say that their dishes profoundly impact the lives of other people, except for Chad Houser. The veteran chef, who once helmed Dallas institution Parigi, is currently head of one of the country's most interesting culinary concepts, Cafe Momentum. In his kitchen, you'll find 37 interns, all of whom spent time incarcerated for non-violent offenses.

After four years of pop-up dinners scattered across the city, Cafe Momentum finally has a permanent home in an old Downtown building. Here, Houser and his staff are deeply devoted to ensuring that the young men who participate in their culinary internship know that they have a future, that their lives matter. Through teaching skills like manning a fry station and proper plating technique, Houser is helping some of Dallas' most at-risk youth build a handsome resume of skills while also putting out fine dining-quality food.

It's a difficult task, but Houser is relentlessly optimistic in his pursuit. In the midst of the always-crazy opening week, I sat down with Houser to talk about the process of opening Cafe Momentum, how he has tweaked the cooking process to work best for his employees, and the primary driving force behind his cooking: saving lives.

Now that Cafe Momentum is just about to open, it seems like you're finally in a sort of rhythm. Has this opening, one of many for you, been easier or harder than restaurants past? I think all in all, easier. I feel like when you go through the progressions of opening a restaurant, you start off with just chaos, trying to get the kitchen in order and the dishes down. Then you have to get the cooking lines in order, focus on the techniques and cooking methods, and then tweak your plates.

We scheduled two weeks worth of soft openings expecting for it to be a long and drawn out process, but by our third night, we had young men that were running lines by themselves. Which is way faster than I was anticipating, and probably more a testament to them than me. From that standpoint it's been smooth. I won't say it's like giving birth because I've never given birth before. But it's a process that's never easy. It's still been much better than I was concerned it would be when we first started trying to make this place work.

Did you encounter any major issues that had to be corrected in the soft opening period. It's been learning all the way around. Our interns are kids that have never worked before, much less working in a kitchen or restaurant. Basic things like teaching them how to read a recipe, the abbreviations for teaspoon and tablespoon. We have to keep it to the basics, and that's been an incredible experience for us. Typically with a restaurant opening, you would have a staff that's already worked for years. With the exception of our chefs, it's people who are basically starting on day one of culinary school.

I don't think the food that you're serving is as basic as you're making it out to be. There are seared scallops, rillettes, and braciole. That's not exactly Kraft Dinner. One of the things that we've tried to do is break the process down to be as simple as possible. One of our young men is focusing entirely on cooking scallops and fish, which means that he can teach another intern how to make that dish. He's a far better teacher than any of us chefs can be because it's fresh in his mind. He hasn't been cooking them for the last fifteen years and takes certain important steps for granted.

We have one young man that is very proud, and all he does right now is cook the beignets and the fried pork rillettes, and plate them. He's got it down, he knows it, and he's very proud of it. That's going to allow him to continue to grow. This week he's going to work on octopus and building out his repertoire.

Still, knowing how to make octopus and beignets is more than many fully-grown adults are capable of in a kitchen. How does your staff feel about the food they're cooking, especially if they've never been exposed to it? Until they start making it, they're skeptical. Then they start taking a lot of pride in it. I give so much credit to Eric and Justin in putting together recipes that we would serve in any other restaurant, these beautiful dishes, but also making it tangible for our interns. You take the octopus tiradito, for example.

When we break that entire dish down, it's a simply made dish. You cook the octopus, you mix it with the compound and pack it into a container, slice it, and put it on a plate. It sounds complicated, but the process is actually very simple. When you break it into manageable steps, it's much easier to do. Even the smoked fried chicken, which is the dish they all want to try first and foremost. We have an intern that is already cold-smoking the kitchen and he really gets it.

Speaking of dishes like smoked fried chicken and tiradito, the Cafe Momentum menu is pretty diverse. Where did the inspiration for these dishes come from? It was a collaborative process between Eric, Justin and I. We wanted to make the best dishes that we possibly could. We didn't want to dumb the food down. We wanted to make dishes that people would see and say "wow, you mean that kid cooked perfectly seared scallops?" Absolutely. He's cooking them with brown butter and making gnocchi with house-made ricotta cheese. We want these dishes to have a wow factor. We want people to see what we see in these kids, which is that they will rise to the expectations that you set for them. That's a testament to them and their character, and we wanted the menu to really highlight that.

Were there any dishes or techniques that you wanted to serve that just weren't possible? I don't think so. If anything, we've all learned that we can push them even harder. It's been quite the opposite really. They're grasping this stuff way too easily.

Cafe Momentum interns rotate through a series of stations over the course of their internship, from the kitchen to the front of house. How will you evolve your menu when there is a new cook on each station every ten weeks? We're teaching the principles of cooking techniques. Whether it's scallops or shrimp or halibut, we want them to have the basic understanding of how to handle those proteins. As we establish a rhythm and culture in the kitchen, it will get easier. We can say to them "Remember how you cooked those scallops? Do that with the halibut." They can build on what they're learning at every station.

Even though it's new, it seems like the kitchen at Cafe Momentum has already got a pretty unique culture. What's it like behind the line? It's a lot of fun. I don't think I've ever danced in a kitchen more than I do in this one. I've spent a good portion of the soft openings actually in the dish pit working with the guys and washing dishes. One of the things that is so freaking awesome is that you're working with kids that have never worked in a kitchen, but watching their faces when they get something right. Watching their faces when someone at the chef's table gives them a thumb's up? Wow. It's the most rewarding feeling I've ever had in a kitchen .

What have you implemented from your past experience as a chef and working in restaurants in your own kitchen and service systems? It's just like any other job. You take all the good and bad from where you've been before. You learn what works and what doesn't and you incorporate that into what you're doing. If I had to pick one thing that I did right in doing this, it was to hire people who are smarter and better than me. Which may be a low bar, depending on who you ask. Not being intimidated and getting out of the way of people who are smarter and better than me is part of why we're feeling so confident after the soft openings. Everywhere you look through this organization, there are people who are absolutely the best and brightest at what they do, and they feel empowered.

No joke. The staff that you've been able to assemble -- Justin Box, Nicole Gossling, Sarah Green and Eric Shelton -- is pretty incredible. How did you make it happen? It's really easy when you're holding onto their leg and you say that you won't let go until they say yes. They're like "Dude, we're in the middle of a restaurant," and I'm saying, "It's more embarrassing for you than it is for me, all you have to do is say yes." But to be honest, it's them and their hearts. All I had to do was introduce them to the guys one time and their hearts took over. That includes everyone, front of house staff, our board. It has more to do with their character than anything about me. They believe in these kids, and they're doing something about it. I think as much as I would like to say that I'm a master at convincing people to do things, the reality is just that amazing people with amazing hearts decided to give their time and energy to making Cafe Momentum happen.

You're the executive chef of this restaurant, but it sounds like you've got a lot more going on than just cooking right now. Are you spending much time in the kitchen? Oh, I'm in there every night. When I'm not washing dishes, I'm cooking. I don't know what the balance between everything I do is. If I could figure out how to sleep less, I could probably work on having a little more balance, but I have to have those three or four hours of sleep every night. Once a chef, always a chef, and you have that attachment to the kitchen. Whether it's the love of food in general or the rush of putting out plates every night or the camaraderie in the kitchen, working in a restaurant is a really special experience.

It's a bonding experience, getting your ass handed to you every night and working with your team through it. I'll forever be attached to that, but I balance that work with spending one-on-one time with the kids, writing grants, figuring out how much money we need to raise. To be able to do all of that and cook at the end of the night is kind of the icing on the cake.

Cafe Momentum is, of course, a very different concept than any other restaurant, but it seems like you're doing everything you can to treat it like any other for-profit establishment. I hope that it lends credibility to our concept. I hope that it exposes our guests to a population of individuals within their community that they didn't know existed or have preconceived stereotypes about. I hope it does all of that. I hope people think of it the same as eating at any other wonderful restaurant in Dallas, and wouldn't know where those kids came from otherwise. But there are also other things that happen that I think are kind of cute. One of our waiters during the soft opening, he had a four top and they informed him that they were just going to order a couple of appetizers to share.

He just kind of put his hands together and said "I'm sorry, you're confusing me. You're Seat 1, you're seat 2 and you're seat 3." If you're at Salum, your server is never going to say that to you. But there's something very endearing about our server saying that to you. Our guests loved it, they started referring to themselves as their seat number every night. It was a reminder to them that not only is this kid trying to learn and better his life, but he was proving it. He could have just said that he didn't understand, he was explaining how they worked through each seat. That was very endearing to him.

At another table, a server was stumped by the market fish. He forgot, and he referred to it as a "little fish," which I think is great. They weren't doing it in a condescending way, and they loved it. I hope those stories continue through the life of the restaurant because it reminds our guests that while they're eating, they're changing lives. The interaction with diners has to be especially interesting. Do you think that they sort of feel motivated to cheer their servers and cooks on and help them out? I think diners do feel like they can help our servers, and they're eager to do that. And whatever they get out of that, they probably don't realize that they're making a profound impact in the life of a young man who is terrified to walk up to their table. There's a whole other storyline in that, but there absolutely is as much to learn on both sides of the table. One of the things that we've learned over the course of the 42 pop-up dinners, there are a lot of things that no one anticipated that we would be teaching each other. If the soft openings did tell us anything, we have to make a concerted effort to educate our guests as to who is cooking their food, waiting on them and bussing their tables.

It's vitally important that you understand that going in. If they don't know what Cafe Momentum is about, they don't know who is waiting on them or working with them. There were people that were guests of people invited to the soft opening that had no clue as to what we were doing. There was one gentleman who was hypercritical of our kids, and in the most polite way possible, I had to tell him that he was criticizing a kid that is borderline homeless. He's criticizing a kid that doesn't know what couch he's going to be sleeping on tonight much less where his next meal is coming from. This kid is on his third day ever in a professional job, and I think he's kicking ass. But it's hard to explain that in a polite and professional way. Sometimes you just want to look at the person and tell them that they have no idea how big of a jerk they are.

What about when it comes time for the critics to make their way into your restaurant? How do you balance the reality of the servers and knowing that your restaurant will occasionally be viewed through a critical lens? I'm glad it's their job and not mine. I don't know how they'll do it, I don't know how they'll treat it. It's an interesting quandary. I don't know how that will be handled or perceived by critics, and I don't envy anyone for having to do it. I hope that they come in and treat our restaurant like they would any other, but I also hope that they have a little bit of compassion for who is serving them.

They won't see the strides that these kids are making over such a short period of time. Maybe they'll get the same server twice or try the same dish twice, and they'll see the progress that we're making. The beauty of this restaurant for me is that I can take pride and this food, and of course I'll lose sleep over the reviews, but at the end of the day, I'm cooking for 37 kids. I want them to know that I love them and I want their life to be better. A review doesn't play into that, that's not what I'm focused on. I'm not cooking to impress a critic, I'm cooking to save lives.

But wouldn't it be sort of uniquely motivating for Cafe Momentum, which is run by interns, to be considered among the city's best restaurants? One of the things that the guys are really proud of is the fact that we were on just about every publication's list of most anticipated openings for 2015. I've told the interns that sets the bar for them, and yes, I would love nothing more than to get glowing reviews. That is very motivating to me, and those are discussions we've had as a management staff. We want to set up systems in place so that we can get really awesome reviews that they can take pride in.

I don't by any means think we're a five-star restaurant, I'm certainly no David Uygur or Matt McCallister, but I think that we can put out a really kick-ass product. And what if we got a glowing review? What if we were one of the top restaurants in 2015? To be able to show those kids that they played such a huge role in that, that is extremely motivating.

Cafe Momentum doesn't allow servers to accept tips, which is another thing that makes this restaurant work a little differently than others. What was the thought process behind that? All of our interns make $10 an hour, whether they're waiting tables or working in the kitchen, which is a living wage for Dallas County. That was very important to us. It's also very crucial that we provide them with a variety of resources, services, and tools. We have a classroom with a case management program, and partnerships with organizations that give them opportunities. Treating tips like donations helps us provide those services and gives us the ability to pay them a living wage.

As is with any job, if you have the choice between washing dishes for $10 an hour and waiting tables to get $300 a night in tips, what are you going to choose? We wanted everyone to learn every component of the restaurant, and in order to get them to buy in, we wanted to make it even across the board.

Now that the restaurant is opening in just a few days, what do you have left to do? This week, I have a final meeting with our contractor who did the construction on the building. We've got a ribbon-cutting tomorrow, and I'm working on partnerships. I'm writing some grants, tweaking the menu, and putting some more systems in place in the kitchen. I'll be working on better systems of scheduling the interns and implementing some reward-based systems to really motivate and encourage and highlight kids who are doing a great job. We have several kids who are homeless, and we're working to address that issue. So just a couple of things. When Thursday gets here, I'm going to be really excited, I think. We also will have our sous chef Justin after he gave birth. Or was part of giving birth.

Maybe you'll be able to get more than four hours of sleep on Friday? Ehhh. Sleep is overrated, and this just fuels that. I will tell you that when I do sleep at night, I've never slept so soundly for that four hours. Head hits pillow, and eyes don't open until it's time to get going. Everything waits, including the bladder. I guess that's how I know I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing.

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