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This Program Is Giving Ex-Cons a New Life in Professional Kitchens

"These guys are just the sweetest guys in the world," says Justin Fertitta, the chef behind the Doe Fund's Chef-in-Training program. "They're trying to survive like anyone else."

"It was about as frozen as Alaska, so we had to do a little switcheroo," says Emanuel Silvia of the beef chuck that he and his partners, Jessica Vargas and Dennis Wilson, were given for today's stew assignment. Instead, Silvia, the evident class clown, Vargas and Wilson are mixing ground beef with eggs and breadcrumbs for an improvisational meatball main course. They will serve dinner to residents of the Doe Fund's housing facility in Bedford-Stuyvesant (one of four locations in New York).


They are three of eight students enrolled in Doe's eight-week Chef-in-Training program. The Fund aims to reduce homelessness, incarceration, and recidivism rates through training programs and educational opportunities that lead to employment. Many New Yorkers know the Doe Fund from their fleet of blue-clad street cleaners. But few are aware that the pupils of the Fund's Chef-in-Training program—whose pasts include grand larceny, drug addiction, and jail time—will staff some of the city's restaurant kitchens, like The Shakespeare at the William Hotel and Pondicheri in Flatiron.

Chef-in-Training began in late 2015 when Justin Fertitta, a gentle giant with curly black hair and wire-frame glasses, signed on. The chef, formerly of Aquavit and Five Leaves in Greenpoint, designed his curriculum "to feed the residents into the culinary world in New York," he says.

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