Edward Lee really doesn't have any time to be taking on extra work. The chef, restaurateur, cookbook author, and television star is opening two new spots in the coming months—a restaurant in Washington, DC, and a bar in Louisville, Kentucky—not to mention turning in another cookbook. But he's somehow finding time for community development, and it could help solve the nation's line cook shortage.
At his flagship restaurant 610 Magnolia, Lee spoke to MUNCHIES about the Chef LEE (Let's Empower Employment) Initiative. It's not a charity, and it's not a stage situation. Young people who get admitted to the LEE Initiative go through a paid 40-week program designed to teach vocational skills by working every single job in his restaurants.
"It started a couple years ago when everyone was crying about labor shortages in the kitchen," Lee said. "It's a real problem."
Lee had noticed how some American cities have neighborhoods where the unemployment rate is extremely high, and wondered if he could help solve the two issues at the same time.
"I thought, There's got to be a connection here," he said. "Why is it we're bitching about not having enough labor when right in your backyard there's a community that has 30 percent unemployment? It didn't make sense for me."
And so the Chef LEE Initiative idea took root. Lee found applicants through local churches and outreach programs. Kids can get in touch through Facebook or a website, which is coming soon. In order to be one of the five or six people selected, an applicant must be at least 17 years old, pass a drug test and psychological evaluation, and have a high school diploma or GED.
"It's one of the few industries where it doesn't matter your pedigree, your race, your gender, your education. You either show results or you don't," Lee said. "It's egalitarian. I don't care who you are or what your education is. Come honest, work hard, and show results."
One of his first kids to join the initiative was a boy who came out to his mom and was kicked out of his home for being gay.
"He was 16 and he was homeless. Nobody gave him a job. He didn't have a house so he went to foster care," Lee said. "He's smart, he's driven. And why is it, because of one thing, your life is going to be over? These are the kids were trying to help."
While Lee may be best known for his cooking, his initiative isn't a cooking school.
"We're teaching them job skills. This isn't a culinary program," Lee said. "We're really trying to give these young adults skills that they can then use to do anything."
Lee believes that by working every job in a restaurant, students can experience a wide variety of learning opportunities, from public speaking to marketing. One of the most compelling elements of the program is that participants can't be fired except in extreme cases of negligence, like drinking on the job.
"We don't fire you. You can leave, but we can't fire you. Once they know that, they don't live in fear of being fired. It's a game changer," Lee said. "If mistakes are punitive, people do not learn. Then they're afraid of making mistakes, especially when they're at that growing stage."
Those who complete the entire curriculum are given a raise (they start at minimum wage) and a job at one of Lee's restaurants—if they want one.
"At the end of the 40 weeks, you may decide that, 'Listen, I don't want to be in the restaurant business,' but you've just had a crash course in how to be a small businessman. It's really about empowerment," Lee said. "We had one girl quit and go get a job in nursing. To me that's not a failure—that's a success story."
Additionally, Lee is hoping that the initiative creates employees for his business.
"I'm investing in 40 weeks. If these kids turn out to be great, I've got a loyal staff helping me run my kitchens."
The Chef LEE Initiative is in beta. Lee wants to give it a few years to see how well it goes before pushing other chefs and restaurateurs to implement the program across the country.
"It's a time investment and it's a money investment, but my thing is I want to show that I can make this program work with very little seed money, and if it does, I want to inspire other restaurants to mimic the same thing," Lee said. "Instead of trying to change 400 lives, I want to get 100 restaurants to do the same thing."
Before the initiative hits those 100 restaurants, Lee will work out the kinks on his own turf.
"It's all a process," he said. "It's so new and so different, we're learning every day."