Chef Ron Ahlert and Karen Heroy, by Allison Futterman
For years, Lora Smoot’s life was ruled by her addiction to crack. Over time, she lost her job and left the community college where she had been taking business classes. Her need for drug money led her to commit forgery, and she was incarcerated several times. The last time she was locked up, she set out to make changes.
“I was ready to give everything up and start a new life,” Smoot says. She got her GED, while still incarcerated. After her release, she went to a residential drug treatment center for women. It was there that she found out about the Community Culinary School of Charlotte, North Carolina. The school is a small example of a program that takes seriously the idea that people deserve a second chance.
Every day at 6 a.m., Smoot was out the door and on her way to the school, where she took part in a fourteen-week program that provides a solid base of culinary training, along with job placement assistance. It’s a safe environment with other people who are not using.
“The support I get here is overwhelming,” she told me. “It’s like one big, happy family.”
Each day, the school’s students and staff sit together for lunch. It’s a time to bond and to enjoy a delicious and filling meal they helped prepare. And it gives students a chance to taste everything they make.
Next year, the Culinary School will celebrate its twentieth anniversary. It has weathered changes in the economy and political climate, followed a sound business model, and grown in size and scope. In 2001, the school started its own company, Encore Catering, and in 2014 it moved to a larger, state-of-the-art facility. More recently, it added an on-site café.
Both the café and catering endeavors provide invaluable training for students while generating revenue for the school, which also receives grants and donations.
Overseeing grants is the school’s development director, Karen Heroy, who has worked at other nonprofits but loves her current job because she gets to witness results. “I see the direct benefit of helping people transform their lives, often overcoming tremendous obstacles,” she says. “It is so rewarding to see them move out of poverty into well-paying jobs with benefits, and have the means to support their families."
The driving force behind the Community Culinary School is Ron Ahlert, known to all as Chef Ron. He has been with the school since its second class, first as a volunteer, then as an instructor. He was named executive director in 2006.
Classically trained, Ahlert cooked in New York and Paris, then had a successful career in Charlotte. But at the school he has found his true calling.
“I’m not getting rich, but I’m enriched by it,” he says.
Ahlert is a recovering alcoholic, nearing twenty years of sobriety. “I’ve been involved in the recovery side, and I take it seriously,” he says. “My core belief is that everyone deserves an opportunity for another opportunity.”
Many of the school’s participants have substance-abuse issues. Almost half were previously incarcerated. Among the barriers they face: a lack of stable community ties, underdeveloped work and life skills, insufficient housing options, and financial instability.
While about 95 percent of people currently in our jails and prisons will eventually be released, not everyone embraces providing second chances, because they view it as rewarding bad behavior.
“Nobody wants to hire a drug addict, someone with mental health problems or ex-prisoners, but they all come back into society,” says Bruce Arrigo, a professor of criminal justice and criminology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. But his research has shown that when disenfranchised people have their dignity and independence restored, the community is better served.
Like Lora Smoot, student Prince Waters has served time behind bars. “I had an early attraction to the streets,” he says. He sold and used drugs. While locked up, his passion for food led him to volunteer as a cook. After his last incarceration, “I made up my mind to live a more honest and productive life.”
Waters recently embarked on a paid internship at an upscale restaurant in uptown Charlotte, which the school helped arrange. He preps and does dishes. It’s a long day for him, between class and work, but he sees it as way of making a better life.
“I just keep working and things look better every day,” Waters says. “One step at a time.”
Since its founding in 1997, the Culinary School has graduated about 850 students. Some are referred to the school by the justice system, some by substance abuse programs and the faith community. According to the school’s statistics, 83 percent of students have jobs lined up with three quarters of them still working after six months.
It currently costs about $6,000 per student. Tuition is free but students are expected to follow certain rules, including no drug or alcohol use and maintaining a positive “no drama” attitude. Besides culinary skills, the school teaches conflict resolution, working on tight deadlines and under pressure, and the importance of reliability and initiative.
The school also instructs students in creating an appropriate outgoing voicemail message and email name, dealing with tattoos in the workplace, creating a resume, and interviewing skills. And they receive preparation and testing for the ServSafe Sanitation Certification exam, which is important when seeking employment in food services.
Graduates go on to work in a wide range of food service jobs, at restaurants, catering companies, hotels, and hospitals. Chef Ron has a solid base of employers with whom he works to find the right jobs for individual students.
One such employer is Chef Charles Semail, owner of Chef Charles Catering. For almost ten years, he’s hired the Culinary School’s students and alumni. “I’ve had someone start as a dishwasher and finish as a production manager,” he says. “I try to help and inspire, because people helped me open doors and I have to do the same.”
For years, the Culinary School has held weekly meetings involving speakers who are in recovery. Then, early last year, Chef Ron hired a fulltime certified substance abuse counselor, Victor Ward. He runs something called “relapse prevention service,” or RPS. It’s also an acronym for “ready, plan, succeed.” Himself a recovering alcoholic who begins each day with a 6:00 a.m. AA meeting, Ward says “I’m a person who was given a second chance, and I’m going to be giving back until the day God comes and gets me.”
Program participants also receive help with housing, medical, dental, and legal issues, which often involves referrals to professionals in the community who donate their services.Even alumni have continued access to services if they are having work or sobriety issues. “We want them to do well, so we want them to come to us if they’re struggling with something,” says Heroy.
Sibyl Durant, attended the school in the late 1990s and is an example of its longterm success. “I was coming out of jail and pregnant, and my counselor at drug treatment told me about [the school],” she says. “They gave me my self respect back. It was a close-knit group of people who had addiction issues who were learning job skills.”
After graduating, Durant was able to get housing and regain custody of her children (who were being cared for by her mother). She’s had a solid work history since graduating, and is currently the director of food services at a large church in Charlotte.
The school has many alumni who continue to progress in their culinary careers. Travis Foxx, now the executive chef at a popular burger restaurant, says attending the school was a transformative experience, “learning from great people who prepared me for life and opened doors for me.” He went from being incarcerated for more than a year and a half to holding a variety of positions, even owning his own sports restaurant for several years.
Smoot plans on continuing her progression toward a better life:
“One thing I see myself doing is going back to school to get my business degree, and maybe having my own catering business.”
Allison Futterman is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina. She can be reached at Aliwrites10@gmail.com.