Michael has loved food and cooking since he was a kid and spent time at his stepdad’s restaurant. When Michael served seven years in prison, he worked in the kitchen preparing food for his fellow inmates. In February 2021 he was released and moved into transitional housing with Central City Concern. He dreamt of going to culinary school but wasn’t eligible for financial aid. Fortunately, he found Stone Soup, a nonprofit food service training enterprise. Today, Michael is using his culinary skills in his full-time position at Nacheaux in NE Portland.
A Passion for Food
The 12-week Stone Soup program teaches workforce and interpersonal skills, culinary skills and customer service to people at risk of homelessness and who have other barriers to employment. Michael found Stone Soup by chance—he walked by their storefront in downtown Portland and asked his caseworker at CCC for a referral. When he first met with their staff, he was excited to share his passion for food.
“I was like, this is something that I want to do for myself. I’ve been in construction my whole life. And I love to cook. Just for once in my life, I want to do something that I want to do,” Michael says.
Once enrolled in the program, Michael found a supportive community. “They’re so welcoming, and everything that we talked about, everything that they do, is positive,” he says. Seven years of prison had made Michael anxious about interacting with people. “My first three months, I couldn’t even ride a bus if there were more than five people on it,” he says. But Stone Soup was a safe, nonjudgmental place for Michael to learn how to connect with others again.
Michael began by doing “book work,” including getting his food handler card. Soon, he was working in the kitchen. “The first week, going upstairs [to the kitchen] was nerve wracking, because it had been a while since I had picked up a knife and started working,” he says. While he had enjoyed cooking in prison, there was more pressure to create a high-quality product at Stone Soup.
More Than a Meal
While Stone Soup used to primarily sell food at their lunch counter, that changed when the pandemic hit. They began selling frozen soup to-go and pivoted to making meals for shelters for people experiencing homelessness. Michael, who experienced homelessness for three years, appreciates that their high standards haven’t changed. Stone Soup also helped Michael create a resume and learn interview skills so he was ready when he interviewed at Nacheaux, a Mexican-Southern fusion restaurant.
Today, Nacheaux really does feel like home for Michael. He affectionately refers to the staff as “a bunch of weirdos,” noting that at previous jobs, he had been the only “weird one.” His boss, Chef Anthony, has been supportive of him shifting the schedule so he can attend a parenting class. He’s also passionate about the food—he recommends the cornmeal fried shrimp mac.
Seven months after he got out of prison, Michael has his own, permanent apartment. He’s taking his second parenting class and his son stays with him on the weekends. He’s happy in his career. “I’m just trying to do the right thing this time,” he says.
Stone Soup is partnering with Central City Concern for Willamette Week Give!Guide. Give $150 or more and get a free quart of soup.