Former convict gets fresh start as sous chef at City Beet Kitchens

“I feel like home, I love being here," Jamel Woods smiled.

The sounds of the kitchen are like life's heartbeat for Jamel Woods.

“As soon as I walk in, it’s a different energy,” he described.

The Brooklyn native started cooking about seven years ago.

“I love the eating, everybody loves the eating part," he laughed. "I also I love the creating and bringing my imagination to life.”

He’s the current sous chef of City Beet Kitchens, which hires people who were unemployed, homeless or incarcerated.

“It’s a way for them to redeem themselves and to learn something new,” Charmaine Landicho, director of events of City Beet Kitchens, explained.

The now 29-year-old was arrested and convicted for criminal possession of a weapon sending him to prison for half a decade.

“I thought about everything my life flashed before me eyes," Woods remembered. I thought about my son, I thought about how my mom would look at me”

He got out in 2014--- and struggled to find work. Then a friend told him about Project Renewal’s intensive Culinary Arts Training Program, meant for people in situations just like his.

“The first thing they ask you is who knows how to cook? Everybody raised their hand of course," he laughed. "Then the teachers were like, you don’t know how to cook, they were right, I didn’t know how to cook.”

Jamel found inspiration and an internship under classically trained chef Anthony O'Connor.

“He was in a class and every morning he’d say 'Good morning chef' with a smile on his face, no matter what, and there was something about him,” Chef O'Connor said. “I said I’d like this guy to work with us.”

So he hired him. They, along with other graduates, cater about 100 events a month from intimate community gatherings to large corporate parties.

“Our ultimate goal is really to create more jobs and to be a contender and a direct competition to all new York catering businesses,” Landicho said.

Jamel believes he’s changed for the better because of this program.

“I became more passive, I became more social, friendlier, I smile a lot more,” Woods smiled.

“He comes to work every day and wants to learn more and more,” Chef O'Connor described.

And he credits his mentor for helping him become not only the cook, but the man he his today.

“I wish I met him seven years ago, everything would’ve been different,” Woods said.

 

Produced by: Kim Pestalozzi