You've been in the can for 31 years. You're 60+ years old with no work history -- unless you count restaurant robbery as business experience -- and you've got nowhere to go, no money (since you didn't pay into Social Security) and no people skills. Sure, you know how to avoid a knife in the stomach, you've got that down; the secret prison handshakes, the mutual respect, the unspoken codes, yeah, no problem there.
But then they let you out. Like that scene in The Shawshank Redemption when the old white guy steps out into the street and the cars are moving too fast for him and he just can't take the re-entry into normalcy without cracking -- he hangs himself. Confinement for decades is traumatizing enough for many prisoners, resulting in plenty of suicides while in the joint, but stepping back into society can be equally traumatic.
Redemption Foods, a restaurant serving casual bistro fare and parented by the nonprofit transitional-living New Horizon Re-entry Center in downtown Los Angeles, is committed to helping ex-lifers -- all convicted murderers who served at least three decades in prison -- re-enter society as easily as possible.
Located in an unassuming strip mall at the corner of Fountain and Vine in Hollywood, it employs recently paroled prisoners for six to eight months, equipping them with interpersonal and professional skills so they can find long-term employment elsewhere. The restaurant, run by executive chef and general manager Ohad Yosef, who hails from Jerusalem, is flooded with a welcoming, warm and honest energy.
When you walk through the doors, Phil Senteno immediately greets you. The ex-con stands behind the pastry case with a long silver braid hanging down his back and a weathered face denoting his 65 years; he's well-spoken, friendly and professional. Upon his parole he was convinced that people would know immediately that he was a felon, given the many tattoos scrawled along his arms. But he got locked up in the early '80s, before tattoos pervaded mainstream culture.
Senteno got into a fistfight in prison, and four days later the other man died; thus Senteno's measly sentence for robbery went to life. During his incarceration at multiple prisons in California, he endured plenty of years in solitary confinement, as he was considered high-risk. His moment of clarity came not through a class or workshop or Bible but rather a somewhat anticlimactic personal revelation.
Senteno's granddaughter was visiting him for the umpteenth time, and on this particular visit she asked, "Grandpa, why can't I touch you?" (As a prisoner in maximum security, physical contact with visitors is strictly prohibited; the glass partition always barricades father from daughter, mother from son, wife from husband.) The profundity of this struck Senteno that day, and he realized that more than anything he wanted close contact with his grandchildren and other loved ones. So he began to change, to work on his attitudes and take classes in order to undergo a sort of personal transformation. In 2010, he was released. Now, he's a bright fixture at Redemption Foods.
Chef Ohad Yosef is as dedicated to helping felons like Phil re-enter society as he is to his culinary vision, which is very clear -- to present simple, uncomplicated food that speaks for itself through its freshness and the care with which it is prepared. Prior to accepting the position as executive chef and general manager at Redemption, he turned down a more prestigious and higher-paying gig. But this opportunity, to help fill an impossible gap in the résumé of these post–middle-aged parolees is, Yosef says, worth the pay cut and the 80 hours he dedicates to the restaurant per week.
Also working tirelessly at the restaurant is assistant manager Nilou Rahmani, who not only manages and trains all front-of-house staff but also drives up to Soledad Prison in Monterey County to sit in on empowerment training classes so she can gain perspective on the ex-cons working at Redemption. Rahmani believes strongly in helping this group of individuals find their way back into society, and she emphasizes that Redemption is not driven by any particular religion, unlike many philanthropic organizations. She is, according to Yosef, "our hospitality queen," and it's true that her charm and smile add yet another dimension of intimacy to the restaurant.
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Although the menu at Redemption is very eclectic and includes a chicken curry and Thai pesto sandwich and a Moroccan lamb entree, Yosef describes his cuisine as "California Bistro" because of his commitment to using the freshest ingredients. One of the reasons he created such an eclectic menu, Yosef says, is so that his proteges can learn a variety of culinary techniques.
"I teach them how to braise, sautee, grill, blanch ... everything. They learn all the stations," Yosef says. "They are used to cutting corners. I don't let them do that. You can't cut corners here -- if you do that, I'll notice. Everything you serve should be perfect," says the chef, who has been working in kitchens for 15 years.
Yosef's interest in cooking started alongside his father, but both of his parents had a profound influence on his vocational journey. "My mother never bought food for the week," he says, "She would only buy for a few days at a time." At 18, he began cooking professionally in Israel before serving four years in the Israeli military. After moving to Los Angeles, Yosef attended culinary school and began climbing the ranks at restaurants around town. "I tell my guys, if they wouldn't serve the food to their mothers, they shouldn't serve it to the customer."
Make no mistake -- it is not just the philanthropic bent of this restaurant that makes it unique. The lamb falls off the bone, the pulled pork sandwiched in a heavenly pretzel roll melts in your mouth, and the well-balanced balsamic reduction on the burrata salad complements the bright cucumber, tomato and cheese. Unfathomably, this lovely salad costs $7, and the sausage, peppers, and chimichurri sandwich, served on a fresh French roll, goes for all of $9. Then there's the water that arrives in a stately carafe, complete with thick slices of fresh cucumbers, which makes you feel more cared for than a guest at Burke Williams.
This is a very good casual-food joint, superior to many places around town that sell lesser-quality food for two or three dollars more a plate. The care taken to prepare and present food in this artful and intimate manner dignifies not only the staff -- both back and front of house -- but also the diner, especially diners who don't have the budget to eat at pricier places.
Yosef has been approached by reality show producers to film the restaurant, but he has turned down such offers. Though the restaurant is for-profit, all of the profits go right back to New Horizons, which isn't interested in cash and prizes or creating a hit restaurant. Instead, with whatever profit Redemption generates, they hope to build a transitional living facility near the restaurant -- away from Skid Row -- to create what they consider holistic rehabilitation for these felons: vocational, interpersonal and psychological.
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Both Yosef and Rahmani emphasize the importance of patience as the restaurant develops and gains solid ground; neither is looking for overnight success. Instead, they are content with slow and steady growth, hoping that, as business increases, New Horizon's macro philanthropic vision can manifest. Everyone involved is interested in building something important and lasting, and, as Phil Senteno puts it, "Redemption is worth the wait."
Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer and a pastry cook at Lucques. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.