Café Momentum founder Chad Houser chats with Southern Living about “taking kids out of jail and teaching them to play with knives and fire” in his Dallas community.

Perri Ormont Blumberg
November 7, 2017

After I graduated culinary school in 2015, I went on a service trip to Maine with fellow folks in the food world. There, I met the most lovely and spunky Dallas gal, who told me snippets about her life in the Big D: the culture, the people, the food. Oh, the food! Of all the places she versed me on, one has always lingered in my mind: Café Momentum. Between lobster feasts and strolls down a dusty camp road, my new Dallas friend told me a bit about the Pacific Avenue institution.

It was only two years later—this fall—when I had the opportunity to interview founder Chad Houser, that I would learn how truly special the eatery is. Houser has contagious passion and a devoted work ethic to serve the community he empowers. Momentum does, indeed, propel all who are touched by it forward.

Daniel Rodriguez

How did the idea for Café Momentum come to be?

Like countless origin stories, Café Momentum started as a sideline passion project before it evolved into a full-fledged nonprofit. For Houser? The Café Momentum dream was born in a place where Southerners feel quite at home: His local farmers’ market. “We were doing an ice cream [contest] at the farmers’ market with college culinary school students. We would charge people to taste the students’ ice cream and give the winner $100. One of our fellow board members was a gentleman who ran a nonprofit that did a couple of classes inside one of the Dallas County Juvenile Detention facilities. So he had asked ‘Can I bring eight kids from juvenile detention to participate?’ Of course everybody on the board thought that was a great idea,” shares Houser.

“Great!” the man exclaimed. A hush fell over the room as the man said now all he needed to do was find somebody to teach these kids how to make ice cream. Everyone turned and pointed to Houser.

The seed was planted, but hours and hours of heartfelt labor had only just begun. Houser went out to teach eight kids on the intricacies of ice cream making, and could feel the passion pulsing through his veins. Known for his kind spirit and as quite the jokester—we’re talking about a guy who often quips that Café Momentum is simply “taking kids out of jail and teaching them to play with knives and fire”—it’s no wonder Houser makes the students who enter his intern program feel comfortable.

From that first lesson however, Houser quickly grasped the power of his preconceived notions. “The moment I met [the juvenile detention center kids], I realized immediately that I had stereotyped them before I ever met them. ‘Thug,’ ‘gangsta,’ ‘hood’-stereotype. The reason I knew I was wrong was because all eight of them looked me in the eye and all eight of them called me ‘sir.’ In twenty years of working, I’ve been called a lot of names in a lot of languages in a lot of kitchens but never was it ‘sir,’” says Houser. Moved by their eagerness to learn and the pride they took in their work, Houser was inspired to continue teaching. When they served their ice cream at the farmer’s market to the public, they beamed with joy over the simple honor of providing their community with an edible gift.

How did it evolve from there?

It was about a lot more than ice cream, as Houser could watch the life changes in these students unfold before his eyes. “At the end of the competition, one of the [juvenile detention] kids won the whole thing, beating the college students and everybody. When he won, he came running up to me and knees bent, arms cocked, in my face, screaming at the top of his lungs, ‘Sir, I just love to cook!’ and I bent my knees, cocked my arms and screamed right back in his face, ‘Sir, me too!’ And he said ‘I just love to make food and give it to people and put a smile on their face.’ For me, that resonated in me to my core,” Houser reflected.

“I’m from a wonderful family with East Texas roots and, as you know, in the South, we do something called Sunday Supper. Every Sunday, my mom, my dad, me, my aunts, my uncles, my cousins...we all went to my grandparents house, and we had Sunday Supper. My grandpa for 30+ years drove a bread truck for Mrs. Baird’s Bakery. He played the guitar and harmonica and he had a beautiful garden out back. Food has always meant a lot more to me than eating. It was about family, camaraderie, it’s about Southern culture. To hear [that student] say ‘I just love to make food and give it to people and put a smile on their face,’ that’s why I do what I do,” says Houser.

The student then told Houser he planned to get a job at a restaurant as soon as he got out of the “juvy’s” custody. For Houser, this was one of the most rewarding feelings. Then, the young student asked: “Should I work at Wendy’s or Chili’s?” Houser, of course, professionally replied “Whoever hires you first.” He drove home that night thinking he would never see that kid again.

“I also knew—certainly not to the extent that I do now—that [the young boy] would go right back to the same house, same streets, same neighborhood, same poverty, same school...everything that had pushed him on the path to jail. And I thought ‘That’s not fair. He deserves hope. He deserves equal opportunity,’” explains Houser. Troubled that nobody seemed to be doing anything about this, Houser realized he needed to stop blaming others and take the reins himself. His mind was instantly made up, though he had no idea what exactly he was going to do.

Chad Windham

What was the hardest challenge you faced during this process?

In 2008 to 2009, Houser spent a year reflecting, continuing to volunteer with the juvenile department, and taking volunteer classes so he could learn more. In late 2009, when Houser was still a partner at Dallas restaurant Parigi, he was on the phone with the owner (my spunky Dallas friend) lamenting that it had been a year and he hadn’t done anything and felt like a hypocrite. During that call, he realized he wanted to open a restaurant and let these at-risk kids run the show. “That was the night the idea of Café Momentum was born,” noted Houser.

He spent another year working on the project and realized the biggest hurdle was the stereotypes others had of the kids. He was met with a flurry of doubtful critics: “What are you gonna do when those kids stab each other in the kitchen?” and “Those kids don’t want to work, they just want a check.”

More determined than ever to crush those labels, Houser knew he’d have to educate the public that they weren’t true, but in a delicate way that wouldn’t turn people off entirely. “I came up with this idea of pop-up dinners. The concept was simple. Go into some of the top restaurants in Dallas when they are closed on Sunday nights and sell tickets to a private dinner.” Houser and his team would bus in eight young men from the juvenile detention facilities to prepare exquisite four-course meals for the evening’s guests. Well, if all went according to plan.

Tell us how that first pop-up dinner went.

With the help of four friends, Houser set out to organize that first feast, completely unsure how it was going to turn out. “That very first dinner, I had no confidence that anybody would show up. I don’t think anyone did. At that time, there were five of us [working together] and I challenged everyone and said the goal is to get 50 people to pay $50 to come to these dinners. Each one of us has to sell ten tickets to the dinner. If you don’t, then you have to pay up for every ticket you didn’t sell,” recounted Houser. Meanwhile, he had already plotted to convince his Mama to enlist her bible studies class to cover his ten. But before he had to rely on that scheme, Houser and another gentleman posted a tickets link on their personal Facebook pages. In 24 hours, they already sold 68 tickets. At the end of that dinner all 68 people shook Houser’s hand or hugged him. Many added “This could be my son.”

That started a string of 41 pop-up dinners over the course of three-and-a-half years. By December 2011, they doubled the price from $50 to $100 and the dinner sold out in 15 minutes. By spring of 2012 they sold out in 15 seconds. By the summer of 2012, Houser sold his ownership back to Parigi and formally embarked on his full-time Café Momentum journey. “September 1st, 2012, I was the full-time executive director and executive chef of a restaurant nonprofit that didn’t even exist!” Houser joked.

Haynsworth Photography

How does the program work now for the students?

“The internship is a twelve-month program. Over the course of 12 months each intern, in no particular order, will be a dishwasher, a prep cook, a line cook, a busser, a server, and a hoster,” explained Houser. Houser and his team serve 15-to-19-year-old men and women. Though their work schedules vary based on school, age, and need, they all spend anywhere between 20 to 35 hours per week in the program.

For these young men and women learning extends far beyond the confines of the rigorous and intense curriculum. “We call ourselves the Café Momentum family. For a lot of our kids, we’re the closest thing to family they’ve ever had. They come back all the time. We do family meal every day at 4:00pm. A lot of our graduates and even kids who didn’t [finish] the program continue to come back and tell their stories. They’re our biggest marketing piece,” said Houser. Before Café Momentum the outlook after juvy release for these kids was dim; after, many of the graduates make upwards of $700 a week and find the stability and support they need to flourish.

How do you help students find a job?

The 12-month program is split into four tiers, giving the students invaluable tools to navigate every aspect of restaurant life. “The kids work their way through the tiers, with a curriculum in each tier. When they get to ‘tier four,’ with the help of our director of intern experience and case manager, they write their resumé and they do mock interviews with our employment partners. Then, they apply for and interview for a job with one of our partners based on their strengths and interests that they’ve learned as they go through all the stations at the restaurant,” explained Houser. Next, it’s externship time. For the last four-to-six weeks of the program, students work part-time at Café Momentum and part-time with an employment partner, making the transition into the workforce more seamless.

Tell us about the food! Do you have a favorite dish on the menu right now?

“Man, that depends on which way the wind blows. We’re constantly changing the menu because we work with so many farms. We may buy 50 pounds of kohlrabi from a farm and it will last us for two weeks so it stays on the menu for two weeks, and then it’s gone,” Houser said.

“Of all of the food that we do and all of the food we’ve ever made, the only food that never has changed on the menu because it’s outsells everything every night, every week, every month, every year, is our smoked fried chicken,” Houser admited. The bird is plated alongside mashed potatoes, collard greens, a biscuit, and gravy, which Houser playfully notes hits all of “Texas’ five major food groups.”

If he had to pick a personal favorite is the single origin chèvre (goat cheese). “We work with a really amazing farm, Bonton Farms. Two of the goats they milk are Lucy and Ethel and I convinced them to put Lucy’s milk in a container all by itself and Ethel’s in a container all by itself, and we make fresh chèvre with the milk. We make a batch with each goat’s milk,” described Houser. When it arrives at your table, each cheese is labeled with the goat’s name. The goats have the same diet on the same farm, but guests can taste the difference. Of course, placing Lucy and Ethel’s bounty alongside honeycomb, olive oil, and baguette, also ups the delicious factor.

Do you have a favorite intern success story?

“Let me tell you about a young man about Abisai,” (pronounced Ah-buh-sy-ee) began Houser. Abisai is the son of Mexican immigrants. After his family crossed the border, his parents got divorced, propelling Abisai from one family of poverty to two families in worse poverty. “He went from a bad neighborhood, to a really bad neighborhood. He turned to the streets to be able to acquire resources to provide for himself like food, clothes, and school supplies,” Houser continued.

“He got in trouble, went to jail, and then went through our program. Upon graduating from our program he went to work with one of our partners here in Dallas, a big hotel. Within three months was promoted from busboy to barback. At 17-years-old, he makes between $700-$1000 a week with full health benefits, paid vacation, and a 401K. This past January I got to watch him walk across stage as the first high school graduate ever of his family. In August, he started as a freshman at Richland College in Dallas where he plans on majoring in mechanical engineering,” shared Houser.

What about a lesson that an intern has taught you?

“I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned is something we all kind of know but it’s really hard to learn it. That is the fact that you can’t really make a judgment of a person until you truly know who they are and where they come from,” said Houser. “By that, I mean, sometimes we get kids who come in some days who are mad as hell. They’re snapping at me and cursing at me. Then I realize, I don’t know what’s happened in their life. I don’t know what happens when they leave the restaurant that night and come back the next morning. Some kids may have been shot walking home from school. Some may have to listen to their mom being raped by her boyfriend at night. They may have walked in on their sister being raped by her boyfriend. They may have been raped and impregnated by their pimp. We have a tendency when somebody is in a grumpy mood to think ‘Why are they being such a jerk?’ instead of just saying ‘Hey, is everything ok?’” By leading with an empathetic heart and genuine care for his interns, Houser reminds all who walk through Café Momentum doors that it is—one kohlrabi bunch at a time.

Café Momentum is located at 1510 Pacific Street in Dallas, Texas. To learn more or donate, visit CaféMomentum.org. Video courtesy of SALTBOX Film Company.