"Can I interest you in a Rouge Batard?"
It's an earnest offering from a young man handing out samples of bread from the Homeboy Bakery table at the Hollywood Farmers' Market. He'll explain exactly how this bread is made with Merlot and cranberries, and just as openly share the fact that he's in the painful process of laser tattoo removal of the prison-style tattoos that frame his eyes. He's one of hundreds working their way through an 18-month training program at Homeboy Industries, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit aimed at helping former gang members and reducing recidivism.
Started by a freshly ordained Father Gregory Boyle (a.k.a. "Father G") in East Los Angeles in 1988, Homeboy Bakery sprouted from the seeds of his Jobs for a Future program. An abandoned warehouse became a bakery, then transformed to a tortilleria, and now the program's Chinatown headquarters houses Homegirl Café—a catering company—and a gift shop featuring logo-emblazoned merch made by their on-site silkscreen and embroidery operation. Its umbrella organization, Homeboy Industries, is a social enterprise whose arms reach into the community through grocery-store distribution of their breads, chips, and salsas; booths at regional farmers' markets; a brand new food truck; an online market for nationwide shipping, and a Zagat-recognized diner nestled in City Hall.
Every purchase of jalapeño sweet corn bread, banana praline cake, chile relleno grilled cheese, guacamole with grilled pineapple, carnitas, vegan walnut brownies, and other treats supports Homeboy's menu of services for their trainees, including employment, legal aid, substance abuse counseling, tattoo removal, health care, parenting classes, psychiatric care, domestic violence intervention, and whatever else develops out of necessity.
Arlan Crane—a former Whole Foods executive chef who now serves as Director of Food and Beverage of Homeboy Industries—says they're also working on a commissary for Culver Studios. She currently oversees 30 trainees in Homegirl's bustling kitchens.
"It's a job-training program, but it's to work on yourself, as well. It's called 'becoming core.' In order to stay with us, it's about cleaning up your core, because a homegirl has to lead a homegirl." Crane explains their holistic approach is about more than food when dramas can arise from former gang rivals working side-by-side in a busy restaurant. "The ladies have to be able to run the floor without me—make sure the girls work through their problems, attend their classes, are going to see their case managers. The catering department is something people have to interview to work in only after they've gone through the training program here. Two trainees have become 'core' and jumped from catering to the food truck." She stresses that the idea is not to "keep employees" but to empower them to get jobs anywhere.
"It's about the name on the door, so they have an ownership in everything they do," she says. "It's important that the name grows. They realize that 'if I'm successful, that many more women or men can walk through that door and become successful, too.' Mariana Enriquez, a sous chef and single mom, started mopping floors here nine years ago, and now runs the kitchen. She's a great mentor because she's uplifting, but she also doesn't allow them to be victims, either. We always say, 'Just get here, come in to work,' then once you're here there's a family feeling—a ride or die mentality."
Crane is filled with stories of trainees becoming line cooks, grocery deli managers, and hospital dietary directors. And now there's the newly established mentorship program with Thomas Keller's Bouchon.
Malo—a 39-year-old Homeboy trainee whose birth name is Javier Medina and whose nickname means "bad" in Spanish—is finishing his internship with the Beverly Hills-based French bistro, where he'll soon be hired as a baker in what he calls his "first legit job." He came to Homeboy post-prison, when his rehab recommended their tattoo removal program, which led to an interest in their training.
"They found out I was a good cook and got me a job in the bakery," he says. "You have to be willing and wanting to change, or else [the program] won't work for you," Malo says. "I got tired of the gang life, the same routines, running the streets."
His former gangbanger friends didn't accept the new Malo at first, though. "They tried to get me at rehab and in front of my family, but once they realized I'm just as strong as them, they leave me alone. I stay away from my old hood now." Though he says he was scared of leaving the comfort of Homeboy's kitchens at first, he came to Bouchon on the strength of a friend's referral, and today enjoys bread-designing while tasting quarter-sized opera cakes under the tutelage of world-renowned chefs. "Some of the stuff I can't pronounce, but I can find it when they ask me to go get it," he laughs.
"It's cool to watch them move on and grow—and they make it," says Crane. "We're very huggy, it's a warm environment. They're more than employees, so it's heartbreaking when some don't make it. But some come back and do make it, when they're ready. We always say, 'You'll leave us before we leave you.'"
Compassion is the main ingredient here, greatly sourced from the ever-involved founder and patriarch. At a recent fundraising dinner where the highest visible donor promised Homeboy Industries $300,000, Father Gregory ended the night with a speech conveying the fact that he "believes in a god of second chances," adding that Homeboy "receives people, it doesn't rescue them." He shared a story of one former trainee recommending that he use "self-defecating humor" in the speech, which caused some chuckles over the tiramisu.
Near the end, he anointed everyone in attendance—donors, "homies," staff, and volunteers—with what has become his mantra: "You are so much more than the worst thing you've ever done."
We ate dessert and believed.