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This kitchen is turning former prisoners and foster kids into chefs



When Orlando Ramirez Herrera left prison, he knew one thing: he was going straight to rehab. He didn't know much else, like that he would be on his way to working at one of Los Angeles' high-end restaurants.

For almost two years now, L.A. Kitchen has been on a mission to (among other things) turn former foster youth and people who have been in prison into chefs.

I tried my first taste of meth at age 11.
Charlie Negrete, head instructor at L.A. Kitchen

"I'm currently in a rehabilitation center, trying to get back on my life," said Herrera, a 27-year-old who recently left prison. "And this place is giving me a chance to do it."

Orlando Ramirez Herrera cutting carrots at the L.A. Kitchen.

And it's doing it with the help of a former drug addict.

"I tried my first taste of meth at age 11," are probably not the words you'd expect to hear from the head instructor of a culinary program.

But Charlie Negrete chooses to be brutally honest over sugarcoating the truth. At 38, he's walking an average of 15 students through L.A. Kitchen's Empower program.

The 14-week program takes foster youth exiting the system and former inmates and then teaches them culinary and life skills. The goal is to get them hired by restaurants at the end of the program.

"I get it. I get that addiction. I get that revolving door [of being] in and out of prison, addiction lifestyle, I mean, homelessness. Like, I grew up in it," said Negrete.

The Southern California native says he's been around drugs most of his life. He climbed up the ranks at some of Los Angeles' finest restaurants, eventually becoming a chef, but addiction pulled him away and into rehab. When he came out, he decided to use his cooking skills for something else.

Now, he's on his twelfth Empower class, cooking everyday with these students.

Charlie Negrete training a student at L.A. Kitchen.

The food they make goes to various non-profits that feed women, children and seniors. The students range in age from 18 to 60.

"My favorite part of this program has been the different training that they give you here," said Herrera. "They provide you from cuts, to plating composition, to how to sear steak properly. They teach you everything here, and I love it."

I love the fact that I have that dream aspect of now being a chef.
Orlando Ramirez Herrera, L.A. Kitchen student

The program is funded privately and is now on its second year. There's a reason its founder, Robert Egger, chose food as the vessel to turn these students' lives around.

"[In] the food service industry, you don't need a high school diploma," says Zaneta Smith, associate director of clinical and student services at L.A. Kitchen. "It's when you get into the corporate environment that they do background checks."

Herrera recently finished serving time in prison for drug possession. Next week, he'll be starting an internship at Otium, a high-end restaurant in Downtown Los Angeles.

But he won't be alone. Other students have gone on to work at such city hotspots as Guelaguetza, Bacaro and Chichen Itza.

"When I originally came to this program, I had though of it as a helping stone. From A to B," said Herrera. "And then it just grew on me. I love the fact that dream aspect of now being a chef."

Related stories on Circa:
He was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Now he's free.
Deaf prisoners have a hard time accessing video phones. This guy is trying to change that.
One Lousiana sheriff thinks the state should keep 'good' prisoners in jail for free labor

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