The Road From Prison To A Celebrity Chef’s Restaurant Isn’t Paved In Gold

Darrell Stevenson served 12 years. Now he’s serving up dishes alongside Curtis Stone

Darrell Stevenson sits in front of Maude, the restaurant where he got his start. Photo by Mallory Loring

Dinner guests at Gwen, the Los Angeles restaurant and butchery helmed by celebrity TV chef Curtis Stone—who you may know from “The Celebrity Apprentice 3” and “Top Chef Masters”—may not see what goes on behind the scenes. To run a well-oiled machine at a fine-dining establishment like this requires the help of a good back-of-the-house manager like Darrell Stevenson, who was given a second chance at a career after others turned him away because of his rocky past.

Stevenson, 53, has been working with Stone for the last three years. He got his start as a dishwasher at the chef’s other L.A. restaurant Maude, and through hard work and perseverance, he moved up the ranks to his current position at Gwen, where he makes sure everything runs smoothly in the kitchen.

Stevenson hasn’t forgotten about what brought him to work with Stone in the first place: the non-profit organization Chrysalis, which helps disenfranchised people get back into the workforce. The non-profit finesses the barriers that keep so many people out of the job market, such as criminal convictions and a lack of work experience. Through job-search and preparation workshops, one-on-one support with employment specialists, practice with mock interviews, and access to professional work clothing, Chrysalis is the embodiment of what happens when you give people another shot. They also refer their clients to job openings at businesses that they have built partnerships with; which is how Stevenson found Stone.

Stevenson says in those first few days of working at Maude, he found it a “little nerve-racking—mostly because the plates and glasses that we wash are very expensive! You do not want to break something that might cost $60 or $100 ever, much less during your first week. But Curtis makes you feel right at home. He's got a great personality and I want to do a good job for us both.”

The outside of Chrysalis' headquarters in Los Angeles. Photo by Jean Trinh

It hadn’t been easy for Stevenson to find jobs after his stint in prison for drug use and criminal activities, and it wasn’t because he didn’t have any previous work experience. Before being incarcerated, he had spent time working as an assistant manager at a convenience store and as a staging and lighting manager for different theater productions. Stevenson was also practically born into the entertainment industry; he is the son of William “Mickey” Stevenson, a songwriter and former Vice President of Motown Records. In between working his theater gigs, he had too much time and money on his hands, which led him to drugs.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]You have to have some level of motivation to have come to us.[/quote]

“[In the] theater and entertainment industry, there’s a lot of drug use,” Stevenson says. “There’s no denying [it]. There still is [and] there always will be, and people get caught up in it.”

He ended up serving four prison sentences on and off, and was incarcerated for 12 years. When he looks back, Stevenson says he now recognizes that he was living a “wild lifestyle,” but was just young and didn’t know what he was doing at the time. When he tried applying for jobs after getting out of jail, he didn’t have a problem landing that first interview—but once he had to talk about his incarceration, he would hit a roadblock.

“When an employer finds out that you’ve got a criminal background there are a few things that usually happen,” Stevenson says. “The interviewer will keep smiling but if you pay attention you’ll see them make a mark your resume and then when you’re getting up to leave you’ll see your resume go on top of the big stack. That stack is the reject pile.”

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]He’s turned out to be a fabulous employee. Darrell’s got the best attitude of anyone I think I’ve ever met.[/quote]

Despite the setbacks, Stevenson was determined to find a job. His mother, who was working at the Single Room Occupancy (SRO) Housing Corporation in Skid Row, suggested that he get in contact with Chrysalis. Mark Loranger, the organization’s President and CEO, says that their program is special because the clients who go through it do so on a voluntary basis—“so you have to have some level of motivation to have [come to us].”

Stevenson first joined the program about seven years ago, and got a transitional job as a janitor at SRO Housing. He would work at a couple of other places before returning to Chrysalis years later. Around the same time, Stone had reached out to the non-profit after attending their annual Butterfly Ball fundraiser. That’s when Stevenson heard about an opening at Maude through his Chrysalis employment specialist.

“He’s very typical of the clients we work with: someone who’s made some mistakes in his life and paid the price in terms of his criminal background but really decided that there was another way, [that] there was another path,” says Loranger of Stevenson.

Since then, Darrell has been a catalyst for bringing on more hires from Chrysalis to both Maude and Gwen. When there are job openings at the restaurants, he’ll ping his employment specialist to send him some resumes so he and Gwen co-owner Luke Stone can vet them. Currently, Maude and Gwen are employing eight other Chrysalis clients. Stevenson, who says he loves his job and recently got promoted from an hourly pay to salary, has also been training the new hires.

“My guys are getting so good,” Stevenson says. “I’m really proud of them and I’m really proud of the Chrysalis program.” Stevenson isn’t the only one who’s happy; Stone is, too.

“With any project or business I’m involved in, I always want there to be a significant element of giving back and I love that Chrysalis is dedicated to giving people a second chance to get back on track,” Stone says. “Darrell worked for me at Maude for a couple of years and now he’s at my new restaurant Gwen. He’s turned out to be a fabulous employee. Darrell’s got the best attitude of anyone I think I’ve ever met. He’s always in a good mood and that sort of culture flows through everyone in the team.”

Loranger says he wishes there were more employers like Stone and his team who are open to hiring people with blemishes on their records.

“When you think of the number of men and women who have criminal background issues in Los Angeles, it is in everyone’s best interest to try and find better ways that they can be meaningful contributors to their communities, and jobs are such a major part of making that happen,” he says.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]With any project or business I’m involved in, I always want there to be a significant element of giving back.[/quote]

As for the sector where job demand is growing, it’s in the food business. According to the nonprofit’s data, 13 percent of the jobs acquired by Chrysalis clients in 2015 were in the food service industry. It’s a figure that has shot up by 40 percent from 2013 to 2015. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently released a report that found in the month of August 2016, employment in food services and drinking places increased by 34,000 jobs, and since the beginning of the year, jobs in the food industry shot up by 312,000. The agency also projected that this industry would gain a whopping 658,000 jobs between 2014 to 2024.

It’s work like this that has made a major impact on a Chrysalis client’s life like Darrell’s.

“It’s nice to know you’re being rewarded even when the manager says, ‘Good job today,’ and at the end of the week, we’re like, ‘Yeah, we got through another week [with] success,” Stevenson says. “Our numbers are turning up [at the restaurant] — people are always telling me that. A lot of pride and it’s a lot of joy comes out of it.”

Photo by Josh Couch on Unsplash

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