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Wayne Johnson Teaches Cooking As Transformation

How learning skills in the kitchen helps overcome economic, social, and cultural barriers.

Wayne Johnson is vice president of culinary operations for FareStart, a nonprofit organization in Seattle dedicated to training disadvantaged individuals for careers in the culinary arts. Prior to that, he was a chef in the Seattle area at restaurants such as Andaluca and Ray’s Boathouse.

I started volunteering at FareStart in the restaurant on guest chef nights because I wanted to learn about their mission working with those who are experiencing poverty, homelessness, and who were formerly incarcerated—the mission of giving people a second chance. That was 21 years ago.

We have a national program called Catalyst Kitchens that has experts going into different cities and towns to support more programs like FareStart. We’ve supported 80 local nonprofits them across 32 states right now, doing the same thing—culinary job training for the formerly incarcerated and those experiencing homelessness and poverty.

All people need is a second chance—somebody to reach out. There’s a big heart in almost every last one of these people. They’re in a situation that does not define them. What defines them is the big heart.

We give people culinary skills, life skills, and training through our restaurants and catering. How do you hold a knife? What’s a dice, and what’s a julienne? How do I read a recipe? How do I do this with other people on the line or in the prep area to be most successful? What we call the kitchen dance. A lot of the techniques fold into each other. If you know how to sauté, it doesn’t matter what kind of cuisine you’re making. And it doesn’t matter if you’re going to end up being a chef or cook or something else. If you know how to keep a clean, organized station, you can do that at a desk. The life skills go further than just in the kitchen.

One of the most beautiful things at FareStart is guest chef night, when area chefs come in to volunteer with the students and work in the restaurant like I did. The students get to see a bunch of different styles from different chefs, and learn a bunch of different cuisines. For the chef and for students, it’s a trial period to see how people work. So students can say, “That’s the chef I want to work for!” And we have a great partnership with these chefs to get our students jobs once they graduate.

I did a dozen guest chef nights over the years and volunteered my time as a chef. Then about four and a half years ago, they were ramping up their catering aspect and didn’t have a chef to oversee it, so I said, “That’s right up my alley, I’ll come help you out for 90 days.” Four and a half years later, I’m still here. If you talk to anybody in the building they’ll tell you—once you get bit by the mission, you’re here for life.

When COVID-19 hit, we watched all our catering get cancelled. You could just watch all these parties we had booked disappear from the screen. It became evident that we needed to switch operations quickly. Our CEO, Angela Dunleavy Stowell, was out talking with the city and the county to understand the next steps with the CDC, and we started writing our own protocols to be safe. Then we just automatically started doing emergency meals within a couple of days.

It was on a Sunday night. I was out having dinner, and I got a call on my work phone, which is really kind of weird in itself. I picked it up, and it was the city and the county and a couple of leaders from FareStart, asking how quickly can you get emergency meals up? People needed to be isolated. Where were they going to get their meals?

It happened really quick, and within a couple of days we were already putting out a hundred meals here and there. Now where we’re doing anywhere between 7,000 and 10,000 meals a day, feeding seniors who cannot go out, and students who were getting their meals at school and still need to be fed when the schools shut down. We’re delivering meals to the shelters throughout the city, and also delivering meals to isolation sites. We went all the way across the board, making sure everybody gets meals. Generally, they’ll get a box with breakfast, lunch, and dinner delivered to both individual homes and big facilities. We believe everybody needs that.

A lot of our graduates were working with our chef partners and our restaurant partners, and were getting furloughed and laid off at the same time. We were able to bring in these graduates and put them on payroll. Talk about going full circle! People who have come out of incarceration, or experiencing homelessness or poverty—they had gone through our program, were very successful when they graduated, went out to work for our partners, got shut down, and then came back. Now they’re the ones creating these meals going back out to the shelters and the people experiencing poverty. It was a beautiful thing to watch their faces when the grads came back, so excited to do something for the community. Such a beautiful thing.

A story came to us via email just a couple of days ago. There’s an elderly lady in her 80s who needs to be in isolation in her house. Her son used to come down and take care of her, but because he’s an essential worker on the front line, he wasn’t able to self-quarantine long enough to go back and forth to the house. So we were delivering meals to his mother, and he emailed to say thank you. Everybody went into the kitchen and read this letter out loud. It can be grueling in the kitchen, making thousands of sandwiches every day, and not being able to follow it through the whole path of where it ends up. This letter helped us visualize that it wasn’t just a sandwich. It was somebody’s meal for the day. Somebody that wasn’t going to have anything to eat. This is the impact we’re making thousands of times over with more than 500,000 meals since the start of COVID-19.

Then recently, the death of George Floyd was a modern-day lynching of a Black man—it can be no clearer in my mind, and I see it every time I close my eyes. His murder led to days of peaceful protests led by civic leaders, pastors, and Black activists to give healing to George Floyd’s family, to demand justice, and to speak out that the nation is wounded.

As the daytime protests progressed peacefully, it was clear that people only wanted and needed change. The later hours brought a close to some of the peaceful marches, speeches, and protests. That unfortunately opened the door to groups that showed up to only disrupt the peace and disregard the law and all those who had peacefully marched to simply be heard.

These acts of violence hurt me to my core. At FareStart, we believe that every individual deserves the opportunity to thrive in an equitable and just world. Our programs serve youth and adults who have some of the hardest barriers to employment—barriers like homelessness and incarceration, which disproportionately impact communities of color.

What we saw in Minneapolis and in communities across this country was not equal or just. It was not morally right or equal. This is the deep wound of racism that our young adults are marching to heal. They know this is not a wound that you can put a Band-Aid on. It’s a wound that will need pressure applied, through peaceful protests and marches. A period of inflammation—to clear out the bad stuff. Rebuilding—the pathway to an equitable and just world. And healing—monitoring that the rebuilding steps are taking hold. Simply put, this will not be an easy or fast process. Hundreds of years of oppression sadly will take years to heal.

What should happen next? The leaders of our cities, counties, states, and nation should come to the table and have a vulnerable, meaningful, and honest discussion about the steps needed to put an end to racism and ensure that the right people are at the table—including those who have first-hand experience and knowledge. I don’t see the solution as a Robin Hood scenario, taking from the rich and giving to the poor. Racism created destruction that will need to be rebuilt with city and state monies. These dollars should be used to provide homes to adults and children experiencing homelessness, raise people out of poverty, and invest in our communities.

Working with FareStart is about caring and helping—reaching out and lifting up everybody who needs a second chance. If you’re climbing a mountain and you get to the top, you reach back with a hand and pull up the next person, and they’ll reach back and grab a hand and pull it up so we all stand on the mountain together. I think everybody can be lifted up.