Chef Eric Shelton on How Race and Food and Work Blend in Café Momentum's Kitchen

It is pretty clear that Café Momentum is more than just a restaurant. After being open for just eight weeks, the nonprofit restaurant has made national headlines while serving food to a completely packed house every night they've been open. The restaurant gives $10-an-hour jobs to at-risk teenagers, and it's a place where these teens can access crucial services like housing support, counseling and mentorship. It's also a place where excellent food is cooked to the highest of standards. The bearer of those standards is chef Eric Shelton.

Alongside executive chef Chad Houser, Shelton oversees a busy kitchen filled with interns who are just finding their footing in the adult world. We sat down to talk with Shelton about how this experience has shaped his outlook on both cooking and life, what it's like to talk about race in the kitchen at Café Momentum, and how he satisfies his creative tendencies.

Café Momentum sort of seems like an interesting place for you to land. After a stint at Kitchen LTO and being on TV, what made this place feel like home for you?

My brother taught me when I was younger that nobody can make it on their own. Everybody needs help. With these kids and the adversities that they face, they need help getting back on the right path. I felt that being chosen to take this job in the kitchen here alongside Chad [Houser], I would be able to help them use this as a launch pad to get back into society and be a better person overall. I'm here to help them better themselves, and working with them helps me. It helps build my patience and understanding because I want to lead by example. It's a win-win for the kids and myself because I can walk out of here and be better a person, too.

You have to be as much a teacher as a chef, which can't be easy. Was that part of what appealed to you, being able to educate people about food?

I was a teaching assistant in college, so I was experienced in creating curriculum and helping the staff do their jobs properly. People say that you don't actually use the things that you learn in high school and college, but my time as a teaching assistant is how I'm here today. I'm teaching these kids how to get to work on time, how to ask questions when they're not understanding a recipe. I'm more or less helping them find a sweet spot in their work ethic. Once Café Momentum is done, they have to have those tools to survive. This is their place to screw up and learn from it so that they can succeed in their lives.

What do they teach you?

They teach me how to have fun. They keep me up with the latest fashion and music trends for sure. They also really help me to be more humble. There are days where I'm struggling and think that I'm going through adversity, and when I hear some of their stories, I realize that I'm having an excellent day. I can take the point of view of these other people and put my life into perspective. Being able to coach and counsel them through the things that are happening in their lives helps me to also be more grateful for what I have in my life.

Chad is pretty adamant about the fact that Café Momentum does not shy away from the issue of race. As one of Dallas' few prominent African American chefs, was that aspect particularly important to you?

I discussed this with my wife not too long ago, and I asked her if she thought that Chad hired me because I was black and somewhat successful. Did he hire me to be an example to show that black men can be successful? I think that was a small piece of the equation, but I also believe that he knows my work ethic and that has nothing to do with my ethnicity. I think that how I handle myself in a professional environment can be a positive influence for the staff here. Whether or not anyone wants to admit it, I think that is a component of why I'm here.

Is that a topic that is discussed in the kitchen between the staff?

I've been told for a long time, even before Café Momentum, that "I'm white." To me, I'm laughing. I'm not speaking with slang or dressing a certain way, I'm a professional. Society paints this picture that white people are successful, they dress right, they have a family that they love and work hard for them, and then black people are supposedly all in jail, they're in the street, they're smoking weed. So because I don't act like that, I'm white. I understand what they're saying, but as they mature, they're going to realize that what they're saying is wrong. They understand how I have to act. If I was to do what they think I should do because I'm black, I wouldn't be sitting here having this conversation. I did grow up in an all-white town, but I know my heritiage. I know where I come from. They're not taking my spirit away.

High standards are really important to us here. You get a lot more chances at Café Momentum than you get in the real world, and I don't want people saying "oh, you worked at Café Momentum? They're all pieces of shit." I want people to see these young men and say "shit, they worked for Eric Shelton." They know how to be organized, how to set up a line, how to cook properly.

So outside of doing all that work -- all the education and the counseling -- you then have to turn out really dope food.

Obviously you have to turn out dope food. That means that you want people to be addicted to what you're producing. I want people to say "shit, I need that smoked fried chicken." What is also dope to me is kids who show up to work on time, who work through their shift and are excited about cooking, and who are progressing in their jobs here.

Are you seeing your kitchen staff really make a lot of progress, or is it more slow-going than you thought?

We're still focusing on the basics of cooking. One week, you'll have a kid that is doing really well, and the next week you won't see him. And that has nothing to do with him, it has everything to do with the circumstances in their lives that they face. When that happens, we pull that young man aside and get him counseling and additional help, and someone else rotates into that spot, and the process starts all over again. It's like "50 First Dates" every day.

I'm the Drew Barrymore of this whole thing, with no hair. We're constantly drilling the basics. If I'm lucky, I can sit outside the kitchen and plan the week and cost menus without interruptions. I have one kid that will cut an onion or make a sauce completely right for three days, and then he'll decide to add cream to this dairy-free sauce. The goal is ultimately to have a team in place that can watch my back. It's like we're going out to war, you always have to have a person that can help you get through it. Fortunately, I have people like Justin Box and Nicole Gossling who can keep the ball rolling when I need to step away. We're doing excellent for being open for just eight weeks. What we're doing now is amazing. In time, it will be better. Perfection doesn't come overnight.

Do you feel like you're working with an even blanker slate than just someone who's new to a kitchen?

Absolutely. The beauty in that, though, is that they have nothing to compare me to. They've never made my coffee gravy before, so there's nothing that should really deviate from what I'm teaching them. But, you know, it happens. Sometimes they put the cream in the sauce where it doesn't belong.

Does it ever seem to happen for the better? Like they throw an ingredient in there without asking and you just have to say "damn, that's pretty good."

It's happened. There have been tweaks that they've made during service that they've made and I've had to say "shit, why didn't I think of that?" The mark of a successful leader is being able to create a team that can take initiative and get shit done. You have to have a team that can make decisions that your chef or owner can be proud of. Which means that we have to really encourage our interns so that they know that they can come up with really great things on their own.

That's a pretty tiny kitchen for four really well-regarded chefs to cook in, but it doesn't seem like there is much of the egotistical bullshit that you hear from other chefs.

No, there's none of that. Chad hires you to do a job, and you do it. Everybody has been appointed specific tasks, and you handle those until they're perfect. Chad is the conductor in front of the orchestra. He's overseeing, and I'm there to keep everything moving forward. Everybody knows their role. If I'm down on the hot side, I shouldn't be down telling Justin [Box] how to do his thing. I trust him to do his job well, and we've created a kind of good marriage back here.

The brain trust here is really strong. Most restaurants have one, maybe two really strong chefs. Have you ever been in a kitchen like this before?

Never. Every kitchen I've ever worked in, I was the executive chef. I didn't have a sous chef. If we had budgeted six cooks for the night, I was one of those six. This is almost a vacation in that I have a lot of people that I can lean on. I'm really thankful for these people that I'm working with right now.

Was there any point where you thought that the food at Café Momentum might not be creative enough for you?

It took me years to do what I'm doing now, and I can't expect these kids to be able to do that in a few weeks. We had to create this menu around their abilities, and really focus on the fundamentals. We don't start off making confit duck on the first day, we're learning how to sear chicken properly. We're learning how to braise and how to grill. We're teaching them the mathematic and scientific reasoning behind the basics, and then we're getting more elaborate with the ingredients. It doesn't need to be oversaturated with all these pieces that make it sound trendy and fun, we just want to do the basics really well. It's like when you're in swimming class -- you start at beginner's and move up. You don't take the kid that's never swam before and throw them off in the deep end. I know that my capabilities are greater than what I've been able to showcase here, but there's a time for that. And it's coming.

Are you ever itching a little bit to be more creative? Are you pursuing other creative outlets where you can do the crazy-ass food that you like to make?

I do host pop-up wine dinners from time to time, but I mostly try to scratch that itch by reading, watching food TV, and practicing when I can. For the most part, though, I'm happy where I'm at. I don't want to lose the focus of what we're here for, and that's not even the cooking. We're building life skills and teaching them a trade along the way. Some of those pieces that we're putting in place they're going to carry whether they're a cook or plumber or lawyer or whatever. It just also happens that we have to cook here, too.

Do you feel like your interns think this restaurant has found its footing?

Definitely. We refuse to be comfortable, though. That's when things start slipping by the wayside. We are constantly striving for excellence. I can't just go chill in the office and expect these guys to do everything perfectly. Then the dice on the cabbage or the onions starts to get way off from what we showed them, and that affects the final product. It's a game of memory back there, and you have to help them along the way. But you can never get comfortable. No matter how many stars we get or how many diners love us, we have to work towards being better. If we don't, we fail.

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