At 50 years old, Kevin Williams appears happy as can be when demonstrating his mastery of a grilling miso-marinated chicken thigh.
He places it on the grill and gracefully flips it to achieve those crucial criss-crossed grill marks. Once he gets the marks, he removes the pieces. "Now, we remove it from the grill and help it out by dry roasting it in the oven at 475 degrees for six minutes."
Williams is employed full-time at LA Kitchen, a self-sustaining social enterprise that, according to its visionary founder Robert Egger, "demonstrates the power of food versus the mere use of food." In a nutshell, the mission of Egger's forward-thinking food business is to hire underserved people like Williams to bring fresh, nutritious meals to seniors all around LA. Egger believes that we may be on the cusp of a national crisis in a few decades, thanks to soon-to-be seniors being the largest demographic in the US right now.
However, LA Kitchen isn't just another radical food-operated charity, especially if you consider who else is involved: High-profile chef José Andrés is the board's co-chair, and successful food entrepreneur Erik Oberholtzer of Tender Greens is a board member.
The company is perfectly summarized by Egger: "Too often, charity is about the redemption of the giver, not the liberation of the receiver."
Williams is one of these receivers, to say the least.
Back in the huge facilities kitchen located in LA's northeast Lincoln Heights neighborhood, I stand next to Williams as we patiently wait for the chicken thigh to get caramelized and cooked all the way through. He pierces the meat with his electronic thermometer and tells me, "We need to wait until the internal temperature is at at least 165 degrees or higher." A former prison inmate, he learned to cook professionally through LA Kitchen's education component. This is Williams' first job ever, and LA Kitchen's cooking school is the only school he's ever graduated from.
I gingerly ask him what he was convicted of, but he has no absolutely no problem talking about it with me.
"At a hamburger stand one night, I was with a couple of friends and my co-defendant went outside and messed with some individuals at a bus stop. I was an 18-year-old Crip gang member and I wanted to make a name for myself, so I pulled out a .22 handgun and started shooting. I was convicted of a murder, 1-8-7."
'Doing harm to others used to be my life as a gang member, and now LA kitchen is my gang.'
He admits that he was hanging out with the wrong crowd and made a poor decision that led to a senseless murder. Since that dreadful day, he tells me that he has lived the rest of his life in the name of the person that he murdered. As he shares his heartfelt, heavy story, the chicken in the oven starts to smell amazing. We stop talking and he checks it once more. "It's ready," he says. He then refreshes some noodles and rehydrated mushrooms he had already pre-cooked in boiling water, along with some roasted vegetables that he prepped earlier that morning.
As he does this, another unassuming employee in a chef uniform named Charlie Negrete steps in to help him with a miso sauce made from the chicken juices in the pan. He stayed after hours to help Williams during my interview and cooking lesson with him. I eventually learn that Negrete has worked at half a dozen notable restaurants in LA: Terranea, The Jonathan Club, The Peninsula Hotel, and Bottega Louie, just to name a few. Despite his accolades, Negrete tells me that working with Williams has taught him "the meaning of hope and how [you] can restart your life in a very uplifting way, no matter what."
Negrete admits that he has dealt with a lifelong drug addiction problems himself, and working with Williams inspires him every single day. "People just don't know the realness of working at LA Kitchen," Negrete says.
Williams interjects: "I don't think the mushrooms are where I want them to be."
Dried mushrooms, along with roasted vegetables and miso paste, are foods that Williams had never tried until he got his job at LA Kitchen about a year ago. Growing up in South LA, he describes growing up with soul food. In prison, he had an "addiction" to candies. He tells me that his diet was mostly made up of prison-issue meals and "chocolates and candies every day." He started to feel body pains, so he got checked out—only a day before my visit—and discovered that he was pre-diabetic. Fortunately for him, LA Kitchen has taught him how to enjoy eating roasted vegetables as much as he likes to eat pasta and candy.
"I especially love veggies when roasted with harissa," he says casually.
Despite growing up with little exposure to the vast world of food, Williams credits being assigned to work in the kitchen while serving his 31 years as a catalyst for his new passion. There wasn't much to experiment as a prison cook then, so he loved to watch and read Martha Stewart and Julia Child. "I didn't know much about French food but I loved watching Julia cook," he says. When I ask which chefs he looks up to, he gets a little shy and responds: "To be honest, I don't know of many yet since I just got out."
He shares a few words with me before catching one of the multiple busses he takes to make the 44-mile daily roundtrip commute to his home in Lawndale from Lincoln Heights.
"In life, I didn't think I would have this kind of job but Robert [Egger] gave me a second chance to really be who I was meant to be. He saw something in me that I really didn't see. Coming out of prison, I was wondering how I was going to make it out here. I didn't want to go back home to my family; I wanted to stay in re-entry and work on me. Now, my girlfriend and I just bought our first car. I rent my own apartment, and I'm happily paying bills. These are all things I've always wanted in life. Doing harm to others used to be my life as a gang member, and now LA kitchen is my gang."
Williams' long-term goal is to be a sous chef at a restaurant. Considering the tenderness of his miso chicken—which, if I'd have been blindfolded while eating, I might have assumed had come from an upscale Japanese restaurant—that goal doesn't seem too lofty.
As he packs up his stuff and exits through the building's front door. I pound his fist with mine and he gives me a small grin. I later learn that he's only recently started smiling in public, thanks to him finally having a front tooth that he'd been missing for years. All thanks to his new dental benefits from LA Kitchen.
"I hate that I had to take a life to make me see all of this. I'm still paying for it and I'm living my life for the person I killed. I am bettering myself every day for him."