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.
Reading Charlotte Silver's new memoir, Charlotte au Chocolat: Memories of a Restaurant Girlhood is like being in an art museum, gazing at images of another time and place. And that's what Silver, 31, had in mind when she wrote this remembrance of her early years growing up in her mother's four-star restaurant, Upstairs at the Pudding. Located above Harvard's Hasty Pudding Club, the famed student society, the restaurant was the "stage set" of her childhood.
"My life was not a child's life of jungle gyms and Velcro sneakers, but of soft lighting, stiff petticoats, rolling pins smothered in flour, and candied violets in wax paper," the book begins.
In a phone interview last week, Silver told Squid Ink: "I think that like many people with unusual childhoods, I had always thought that I might write about it ... I wanted it to be a very visual book, even kind of painterly. ... I really wanted it to be a portrait of this beautiful lost world."
The latest installment in our sporadic series about life behind the kitchen door features Jason Michaud, the 39-year-old owner of Local. At his two-and-a-half-year-old Silver Lake cafe, he is committed not just to local produce and sustainable environmental practices but to paying employees a living wage and using fair labor practices. And he thinks his business is stronger because of it.
To many of the 276,000 people working the gritty, grueling jobs in Los Angeles' vast restaurant industry, the conclusions of a report released today by the Restaurant Opportunities Center of LA come as no surprise. Long hours, low pay, no health care benefits, no vacation or sick-time. Then there are subtle but pervasive problems like sexual harassment and racial discrimination (i.e. Latinos working most of the low-level jobs receive far fewer opportunities for advancement).
It's no accident ROC-LA chose to release "Behind the Kitchen Door" today. Valentine's Day is the single most booked -- and most profitable -- day of the year for restaurants. (It's an even bigger boon when the holiday falls on a Monday.)
The report isn't earth-shattering, but the cold, hard statistics about life in the local restaurant industry -- which accounts for nearly 1 in 10 jobs in the LA area -- are eye-opening. (A PDF of the full report is available here.)
[This is the second installment in a series.]
Laurel*, 27, was a short-timer in the restaurant industry. She spent eight to nine months working at a lively neighborhood restaurant and bar while studying for her college degree. She worked part-time -- everyone works part-time, she says -- or about 30 hours per week. She sums up the problems quite bluntly.
"You don't have any benefits. They talk to you like crap. [You can't] eat what you want. [You can't] take a full break. The cooks sometimes sexually harass you," Laurel says. Customers often harassed the female waitstaff as well.
We spend a lot of time, here at Squid Ink, writing about restaurants and their food. How it tastes, how it smells, how it looks. Sometimes, we even talk about where that food comes from. Maybe we celebrate the chef who cooked it. One thing we almost never discuss: The people who, day-in and day-out, make that food and bring it to your table. Amid the belt-tightening of the recession and the belt-loosening of Valentine's Day (the single biggest restaurant day of the year), we think it's time to shed a little light on the line cooks, waiters, runners, servers and dishwashers who often work grueling hours for little pays so diners can enjoy grilled octopus with palm hearts or steamed duck with lemon verbena or a towering burger.