Chad Houser Built a Career Feeding Customers, But He Gave it Up to Sate a Different Sort of Hunger

In this week's Dallas Observer we profile 30 of the metro area's most interesting characters, with new portraits of each from local photographer Stanton Stephens. See the entire Dallas Observer People Issue here.

Dutiful young men whipped through Five Sixty by Wolfgang Puck, the rotating restaurant at the tip of Reunion Tower, bearing trays of moist pork-belly potstickers and lobster-and-shrimp eggrolls, plates of ultra-tender steamed Scottish salmon and cups of summer asparagus soup. Patrons paid $100 a pop for the privilege not just to consume a four-course meal prepared by the finest chefs in Dallas, but to give these boys a glimpse of another world and a shot at joining it.

To a one, they came from the Dallas County Youth Village, the last stop for juvenile offenders before the system spits them back out into same world that delivered them there in the first place. Parigi chefs Chad Houser and Janice Provost knew they could do better. So each month, Café Momentum takes eight of the most dedicated young men from the Youth Village's culinary program -- guys like 18-year-old Malik Runnels, above left -- and puts them to work alongside a rotating cast of esteemed chefs, where they learn everything from cooking and prepping plates to washing dishes and waiting tables.

The proceeds from these dinners -- there have been 22 since June 2011, hosted at restaurants including Bolsa Mercado and Dee Lincoln's -- go not just to the wages the young men earn for the evening, but to the construction of a permanent restaurant they will staff, and to a mentorship program that will train them for a life in the culinary field. Houser dreams of the day when the itinerant Café Momentum becomes a symbol of permanence in their lives. That's why he sold his stake in Parigi to devote himself full-time to the nonprofit. "I needed to put some skin in the game, or I'm just gonna be another one of those people that's moving lips at them," he says.

It's paid off. At the end of the pop-up dinner at Five Sixty, Houser, 37, announced that the United Way had given Café Momentum a grant worth $175,000 toward the construction of a permanent restaurant. In other ways, the results of his efforts were just as tangible. Addressing a sated crowd, one of the young men said he'd learned one unmistakable lesson from the sold-out dinner: that there are people out there who care about what becomes of him.

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