Inspiration Kitchens Gives Homeless Chicagoans Culinary Skills While Serving Delicious Food

09/23/2011 02:34 pm ET | Updated Nov 23, 2011

Tucked just below the Lake Street El tracks in Garfield Park, Inspiration Kitchens stands out from the pizza places, sub shops and Chinese takeout spots that dot the neighborhood.

Outside of its brick building, eggplant, melon and corn grow in a garden. Inside, rectangular tables of reclaimed barn wood are arranged on a concrete floor, ready to hold diners who will taste crawfish beignets and crab-stuffed tilapia.

The whole aesthetic would blend in perfectly next to restaurants like Blackbird or The Girl & the Goat, in River North or Lincoln Park or the West Loop, but Inspiration Kitchens-Garfield Park, which opened in May, has placed itself purposely in a neighborhood where it can be of the greatest assistance to the people who walk through its doors.

Because it's those people, who cut up carrots in an eco-friendly kitchen and who learn knife skills on Inspiration Kitchens' gleaming, stainless steel counters, that make up the heart of the restaurant. Their stories are filled with struggle but have been injected with hope and personal achievement because of what they have found within Inspiration Kitchens.

They are people like Kim Williams, who was an alcoholic, drug addict and living on the streets before she enrolled in Inspiration Kitchens' culinary food service program. Williams now greets and serves diners, and says her job is "my motivation to stay clean."

And there's Bettye Foster, a grandmother of five, who graduated from the culinary program in September and is now working at Inspirations Kitchens as a prep cook. In October, she will begin preparing food for Chicago Public School students -- the first job in years where she won't have to scrub toilets for a paycheck.

"I've spent my life doing jobs for other people," Foster, who's 55 and lives in Garfield Park, said. "Now it's time for focusing on me, and this is what I want."

Both Williams and Foster are graduates of Inspirations Kitchens' 13-week program culinary program, which averages 10 to 15 students per class. The next crop of Garfield Park graduates, its third graduating class since opening, will receive their certificates in October. The culinary program started at the Inspiration Kitchens location in Uptown, once called Cafe Too.

Avril Greenberg, general manager of the Garfield Park location, said the program costs the nonprofit organization about $10,000 per student but is free to those who enroll, who must apply for the program and generally show financial need. She added that the retention rate for students at has been about 90 percent thus far. Overall, 60 percent of those who do become employed have kept their jobs after six months.

"They not only feed you," Williams, 43, of Logan Square, said "they give you a means of getting yourself your own meals."

Key to Inspiration Kitchens-Garfield Park, which was sparked by a $2 million gift by philanthropist Len Goodman, is the restaurant's dining program. Students in the culinary program, whose food is overseen by Executive Chef David Rosenthall, regularly cook for public diners.

Anyone can eat at the Inspiration Kitchens for lunch from Wednesday through Friday, brunch Saturdays and Sundays and dinner Wednesday through Saturday. The prices represent some of the best values in the city, with most lunch and dinner entrees priced from $8 to $10 and rarely exceeding $12. All of the proceeds go toward Inspiration Kitchens, whose Garfield Park location runs on an $802,000 annual operating budget, according to Inspiration Corporation CEO and Executive Director Shannon Stewart, which includes maintaining the restaurant, training program and Guest Certificate program. The Guest Certificate program provides 100 free meals a quarter to low-income residents, where they can dine alongside other restaurant guests without any hint that they're obtaining their meals for free.

"We were looking for a way to provide meals in an atmosphere of dignity and respect," Stewart said.

Foster, who grew up in Garfield Park and was unemployed before enrolling in the culinary program, said the restaurant is quickly becoming a symbol of community interest and pride.

"It means such a great deal," she said. "In this area, you know, there are not a lot of nice restaurants. It's just hot dog- and hamburger-type places. Here, there's a place to listen to nice music and enjoy nice meals other than fast food. And people are always looking in at us cooking through the glass windows, smiling and waving and trying to get us to give them some food. They see us doing different dishes, and it's exciting. It's something to watch other than the busy streets."

The restaurant, Greenberg added, is close to being certified as LEED gold, and in addition to its garden and recycled barn wood tables, it has solar panels on the roof and a range hood that does not need to run continuously. Its eco-friendliness is reflected in the broad windows that let copious amounts of sunlight into the dining area.

"We wanted it to be beautiful without being pretentious," Greenberg said.

Kanette Mwanjabala, 31, of Lawndale, dined at the restaurant in August for the first time with her co-workers at Lawndale Christian Health Center. She said the option to order a quinoa burger off the menu surprised her.

"It tasted really fresh and healthy," Mwanjabala said. "I would have thought it was an upper class restaurant, the way it tasted and the type of food they had."

The menu at Inspiration Kitchens, which changes seasonally, often includes oxtail empanadas, polenta fries and sweet tea brined pork chops. Inspiration Kitchens is the type of restaurant, Mwanjabala said, that is a catalyst for change within a neighborhood.

"When you go to a place like Inspiration Kitchens, and you see it's in your neighborhood and see it's not for the middle class or upper class, you start demanding that in other establishments in the neighborhood," Mwanjabala said. "Like schools. Why can't schools look more like the inside of Inspiration Kitchens? Why can't libraries have this type of aesthetic? Even city parks? Why should homes look abandoned and broken down and unkempt when we can have nicer things and deserve to have nicer things? Knowing that you can accomplish that in a community like this, you should see more of it. You should feel safe and comfortable and free."

Inspiration Kitchens - Garfield Park is open from 11 a.m. - 3 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 9 a.m. - 2 p.m. Sat-Sun., and 5 p.m. - 9 p.m. Wed.-Sat. For reservations, call 773-801-1110 or check out the "Locations & Hours" section of the Inspiration Kitchens website.

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