By J. K. Schmid, Special to the AFRO
Chef Stew was bringing two of his donors up to speed Tuesday afternoon outside Three Goats on Preston Avenue.
In black slacks and chef’s coat, Stew was constantly moving his arms wide for emphasis and pushing his three quarters sleeves up just a little more here and there in between breaths. It was altogether a look of a man ready to get to work.
“We’re too close,” Stew later told the AFRO in the Three Goats’s upstairs dining space over meals of tacos, chicken quarters and cucumber water.
Chef Robert “Stew” Stewart, a Baltimore native now living in Las Vegas, has cooking bona fides across the spectrum. A Food Network personality and winner of “Cutthroat Kitchen” has also been a personal chef for celebrities such as Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Luenell, and Shaquille O’Neal.
His current project, Transition Kitchen, years in development, is to create a teaching kitchen in Baltimore City that would divert Baltimoreans from the criminal justice system and provide job training and work placement for returned citizens from Maryland corrections.
“This is for the kid, where’s his mother’s like, ‘he quit high school, I can’t get him to do anything,’ Stew said. “This is for the 18-year-old who just got out of prison for breaking in a car, who dropped out of high school. That’s my potential student.”
Stewart and his representatives tell the AFRO that Transition Kitchen already has a roster ready of potentials. A full list was not released to the AFRO over concerns for applicant privacy.
Connecting with U Empower Maryland, specifically The Food Project, Stew says he’s been working for two years with U Empower to get students dressed, equipped and in the kitchen.
The city offered the duo Samuel B. Morse Elementary as a workspace, with the additional offer to pay for plumbing and repairs while foregoing rents for one year to test Transition Kitchen’s viability.
Then things took a turn in August.
“They’re [U Empower] trying to put me out of the building and gave me this cheap excuse, after all this time, gave it to me in email, and caught me on three-way, ‘we actually need you to leave on the 19th,’’ Stew told the AFRO. “And then I go to say something ‘well, we don’t want you the be upset,’ and then basically hang up.”
At this point, U Empower had put $38,000, funded with donations and grants, into its own renovations and improvements to Morse. Stew still has the keys to Morse and lingering questions about how much of these contributions may have been specifically earmarked for Transition Kitchen, but he also says he’s ready to move on.
“I kinda just feel like, let’s find another building for this story,” he says dusting his hands with loud claps. “And we can move forward from there. And let the success of Transition Kitchen really be the get back.
“The Food Project, which is a program of U Empower of Maryland, was going to include Transition Kitchen programming during phase 2 of development,” Kosmas “Tommie” Koukoulis, Restaurateur with U Empower, texted the AFRO. “Phase 1 has not even officially begun yet. U Empower has been working on bringing phase 1 to reality for about 6 months. Thank you for your interest.”
Stewart has since been reaching out for direct funding from the community. Two donors he calls his “gold sponsors” have put $20,000, about four months of operating costs, to get Transition Kitchen moving.
“Being in the presence of Chef Stew’s enormous vision, it takes me a little while to grapple with the whole thing,” Judith Goedeke, of Parkville, told the AFRO. “But he is a visionary, he is coming from such a pure place, he is helping the least of us, to use the Biblical expression. And he has the skill to teach them an enormous range of important life lessons and skills that they can use if they choose to go into food service.”
“I was very fortunate,” Charlie Goedeke told the AFRO. “My parents we from a very comfortable middle-class Parkville upbringing. They paid for my schooling, so I got off to a good start. My parents had both passed away recently in the last few years, and so, I got a little inheritance, which I wasn’t expecting. So, it was nice, but we don’t really need it, because we’re comfortable, and we don’t need a whole bunch, and we want to help other people with it.”
Stewart is meeting with Mayor Catherine E. Pugh Friday to discuss new arrangements for Transition Kitchen, including securing independent space.
Simultaneously, Transition Kitchen is in dialogue with Baltimore’s State’s Attorney’s Office (SAO). Transition Kitchen appears to harmonize with State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby’s Project 17, a “youth program to reduce chronic absence and truancy through employment.”
“Mr. Stewart, I am writing to see if you would be interested in exploring a partnership with the Baltimore City District Court Reentry Project,” Rena Kates, SAO Juvenile Justice wrote in an August email. “Our program was founded by Judge Nicole Pastore-Klein, and we connect adults with criminal records to job training programs. Transition Kitchen could be a great fit if you are willing to accept individuals who have been or are currently under court supervision for criminal offenses. I’d appreciate the chance to speak with you about this more if you are interested.“
At the moment, Stew says he needs funding for equipping his individual students with uniforms; hats, non-slip shoes, aprons and the like; thermometers, knives and Tupperware, and the food to be prepared.
But more immediately, “we need somebody to open up their doors, and bring us into their space, until we can work out the kinks with the mayor and everything else,” Stew said.