Last week, the do-gooders at Cafe Momentum took a monumental step when they opened their downtown brick-and-mortar restaurant. Anyone who pays even the slightest attention to Dallas food media likely already knows the story behind the nonprofit, but for the unititiated: Cafe Momentum is a training program that gives real-world culinary and hospitality experience to young men who've spent time in juvenile facilities, equipping them with the skills and job opportunities they need to get a leg up in life.
The organization garnered an impressive following from the dozens of pop-up dinners its hosted at various restaurants throughout the city since launching in 2011, with big-name chefs like Dean Fearing, John Tesar, Nick Badovinus, and countless others getting involved. Making the move from a roving pop-up to a full-fledged restaurant in a permanent space has enabled Cafe Momentum to greatly expand the opportunities it has to offer kids in the program, something co-founder and executive chef Chad Houser is eternally grateful for: "We're literally going from working with these guys once a month to seeing them five days a week," says Houser.
The newfound ability to offer the kids full-time internships rather than just occasional events to work is going a long way toward teaching them the skills they need to make it in the real world. "The kids are getting used to showing up for work, showing up on time, and staying till the job’s done," Houser explains. "Things that seem so basic and simple to most of us, but these arent things they're used to. These aren't behaviors that have been modeled for them."
The young men's inexperience turns out to be a major boon in some ways: "They have zero experience so they have no preconceived ideas of how they should be doing things," Houser says. "Anyone who owns a restaurant knows you can get the most experienced waiters who are fantastic, but they want to do things the way they've always done it in the past. These kids are totally moldable, we tell them how to do it and that's how they do it every time." At Cafe Momentum, that means the inclusion of service steps typically only found in the upper echelon of restaurants, like resetting the table after every course.
Houser also says that so far, patrons seem to be delighted — and surprised — by the level of food that's coming out of the kitchen. "I think some people had this misconception that we were going to dumb down the food so that it would be easy for the kids to do," he remarks.
The kids working in the kitchen certainly have no shortage of culinary mentors to learn from, with a team that includes former Kitchen LTO chef Eric Shelton, previous Bolsa sous chef Justin Box, pastry chef Sarah Green (formerly of Oak), and Nicole Gossling, whom some will remember from her previous "Secret Supper Club" dinners often held in Deep Ellum. Plates like octopus tiradito with aji amarillo and smoked carrot pappardelle with mole chicken sausage are as sophisticated as what you'd find in many of Dallas's trendy, forward-thinking restaurants — with the major bonus that patrons' dining dollars are going toward one of the city's most worthy charitable organizations.
Cafe Momentum is open for dinner only Thursday through Saturday beginning at 5:30 p.m.; reservations can be made through OpenTable.