Beyond its obvious carnal pleasures, food can be a powerful tool for rehabilitation. Cooking is not only a sensory activity, but it is also social, physical, and cognitive. It can be a sort of therapy for those that have suffered trauma, and help teach a person self-worth.
Homeboy Industries, a nonprofit based in Los Angeles, uses the culinary arts to rehabilitate former criminals, gang members, and drug addicts, and transform them into kitchen professionals. At Homeboy Bakery and Homegirl Café, down-and-out Angelenos restore their quality of life by learning tangible skills for future careers.
Glenda Alvarenga, sous chef at Homegirl Café, moved from El Salvador to the U.S. when she was 14-years-old. She didn’t come up through the ranks by graduating from the Culinary Institute of America or staging at a Michelin-star restaurant. Her life in the kitchen started after she spent three months in jail for a crime her ex-boyfriend committed. (After she served her jail sentence, the courts determined she wasn’t guilty.)
Alvarenga was both incarcerated and released in 2007, at which point she owed $20,000 to the state, didn’t have a job, and was enrolled in community service. “Someone told me about a place called Homeboy Bakery where I could get food for a couple of dollars, so I went to get something to eat,” says Alvarenga. She wound up speaking to a staff member, who told her that Homeboy Industries helped people with a criminal record. “I immediately asked what I could do to get involved.”
Alvarenga started as a baker at Homeboy Industries in fall of 2007, and quickly moved up to sous chef of catering at Homegirl Café. Since then, the Homeboy staff helped her file divorce papers, retrieve her son from social services, and remove a tattoo.
Homeboy Industries isn’t the only organization that uses cooking as a tool for positive change. Kogi chef Roy Choi’s 3 Worlds Cafe originated as a way for local teens in South L.A. to learn healthy eating habits—both as customers and paid employees. In Cañon City, Colorado, prisoners at correctional facilities pick grapes for wineries, milk goats, and farm fish that sells at Whole Foods.
“I realized what I really love to do is make food. I like the little details and making everything beautiful,” says Alvarenga about her newfound passion and career.
We spoke at length with the Homegirl Café sous chef about her personal journey, and how cooking has positively influenced her own life and the lives of those around her.
What did working in the kitchen teach you about yourself?
I went through a lot of tough times. I was married for six years, went through a divorce, and had a child. The only way I could get away was by cooking all the time. Working with food—and also working with other people—helped me a lot. I remember telling my son I work in a kitchen, and he told me, ‘That’s so cool, can you teach me?’ It’s so nice to be able to teach my son to cook for himself instead of eating out. He always wants to make pancakes and eggs. And he’s always excited to say his mom is a sous chef.
When I was in jail, I thought I would never get out. They offered me 11 years and took my car and I thought ‘Oh my god, this is it.’ I’m so fortunate that I was released after three months, and I am so happy I found Homeboy. Now I have a career and I have my son back.
How do your employees benefit from working at the cafe?
I want my employees to feel good about themselves and know that they’re making positive changes in their life. It’s important to tell people they’re doing a good job. I have an employee who thinks she can’t make pretty things. She hopes one day she can be like me, and I told her, ‘You don’t have to be like me—you can succeed by being your own person.’ And she said, ‘You know what, you’re right.’ The next day she came to work and said she tried to make something for her husband, and she said, ‘It didn’t turn out quite like yours, but it still turned out really nice!’ I thought, you know what, that’s great. They try. It’s crazy how helpful it is for them.
What are some of the bigger challenges you face with new employees that haven’t been treated well in the past?
When we have someone new, we first take them for a tour around the café and show them where everything is. Most are there for prep, so one of the next things we do is teach them how to use a knife. Most people act like they already know how to do this and we don’t need to teach them anything. Once they see that it’s not that easy, then they’re open to being taught. You have to wait a couple minutes for them to realize they’re wrong, and then I come in and teach them how to grab a knife and the correct way to do it. You just have to pay attention and then once they get it, it’ll be their own way of doing it. For the whole day they’ll ask you a million questions and you have to be really patient with them.
Training people is hard and takes time, but it’s worth it. Once you see they’re doing things the right way, they think “Oh, this person taught me!” It makes me feel good, too. I came from nothing and became something. Now I’m helping other people who are coming from nothing to be better. Some people go to work at other restaurants, and want to come back to Homeboy and visit me. It’s amazing.
Is coming to Homeboy like a refuge or escape for people?
There are people from all different neighborhoods hugging and saying good morning when they get in. We have morning meetings in the lobby every day, where we say a prayer and share a story. You get to hear stories that make you think, “I didn’t go through something that awful, but I’m here and I’m doing better.” The stories are crazy sometimes. For instance, some people got into drugs and were so blind. There was a guy that thought he died, but he didn’t really. The stories about drug addictions are scary. It’s great to see that now they’re doing well. Fabian Debora, who works at Homeboy, he’s an artist now. It makes you wonder how you can come from this background and get to this level. He said he hated to be on drugs, but every time he was doing drugs he was thinking about painting. He was able to paint off ideas and I don’t know how he did it. It’s awesome.
Does your son want to be a cook when he grows up?
He tells people he wants to be a firefighter when he grows up because he wants to help people. He says he thinks people need help. He also likes to cook, and sometimes I’ll find him on top of all my stuff in the kitchen. Then he’ll say, “I want to make breakfast, can you help me? I’ve cracked the eggs and made pancake mix; can you put it on the fire? It’s our breakfast!” He knows how to do it and he’s a little chef. Sometimes I come home and he wants to know how to make pico de gallo after learning about it at school. So I’ll show him how to cut tomatoes, cilantro, and even how to make guacamole. I have a chopper, so he doesn’t have the use a knife. Every time we cook something at home he wants to taste it. He’ll taste new ingredients just to see if he likes it.
What’s your favorite thing to cook?
I make something for a class every summer that I teach called carne con papas. It’s something my grandma used to make for me in El Salvador, and I learned to make it when I was little. At the café, two of my favorites are chilaquiles and mole. The mole has 27 different ingredients, and making it into one salsa is exciting. You have to get all the different chiles, fry them, then get the fruit and add everything. It’s fun to learn and invent all types of recipes all the time.
How to Make Homegirl Café Chilaquiles
Makes 6 to 8 servings
Photo: Homegirl Café and Catering
For the chilaquiles
- 4 oz fried tortilla chips
- 2 oz. chile morita salsa*
- 1 oz sour cream or crema fresca
- 1 oz cotija cheese
- 1 generous pinch of cilantro
- ½ oz sliced onion
*For the chile morita salsa
- 20 tomatoes, halved
- 6 dried morita chiles
- 6 fresh garlic cloves
- ½ cup vegetable or olive oil
First, prepare the salsa: In a large pot over medium heat, add the oil and let it sit and get hot for approximately one minute. Add the cloves of garlic and cook until browned. Next, add the morita chiles. Let the oil, garlic, and chile mixture come to a soft boil. After this mixture boils, add the tomatoes. Cover the pot, turn down the heat, and let the mixture simmer for 30 minutes. After the mixture cools down, pour it into a blender and blend until smooth.
In a large bowl, place the tortilla chips and about two cups of the morita salsa. Fold in the onions, cotija cheese, and sour cream (crema fresca). Serve on individual plates, with extra sour cream, cotija cheese, cilantro, and morita salsa on the side. Chilaquiles can be served with eggs any style, but sunny side up or scrambled are best. Add a side of refried beans for the ultimate breakfast.