Oct. 25, 2016 8:34 p.m. ET
When Calvin Williams ended a two-year tour in the army, he returned to his New Jersey neighborhood and started selling cocaine for $50 a gram. After two stints in jail and a broken marriage, he began sleeping in abandoned cars, addicted to heroin.
Now at 52 years old, Mr. Williams has a different routine: He was hired this year as a prep cook at Del Posto, where he chops vegetables and makes stocks for dishes on the Italian restaurant’s $149 five-course tasting menu. He also helps to cook the “family meal” for its 100 employees.
Mr. Williams is part of a wave of formerly homeless or incarcerated people, largely men, who are enrolling in culinary schools run by their rehab centers and landing jobs at some of New York City’s top restaurants.
A citywide cook shortage has made restaurants more willing to take a chance on workers other employers might shun.
“I’ve had plenty of cooks with the same issues who aren’t in a program, but I wish they were,” said Melissa Rodriguez, chef de cuisine at Del Posto. She currently oversees three graduates from Project Renewal, Mr. Williams’s program, which helps homeless people in New York City.
Earlier this year, another nonprofit, the Doe Fund, created an advanced culinary training program for its clients who are either homeless or recently released from jail. And on Wards Island, homeless men farm and take cooking classes through a collaboration between the homelessness nonprofit HELP USA and Project EATS, which runs urban farms across the city.
“I’ve lived in New York my entire life. I would never have guessed there was a farm and a bunch of chefs beneath the Triborough Bridge,” said Chris Shea, executive chef at the Wayfarer. He has hired two people from the Wards Island program and uses some of the farm’s produce in his restaurant.
In a kitchen on the island, Daniel Maguire instructed students as they made Thai venison stir fry with sesame vegetables, along with freshly made pastas, including one with octopus and another using kamut, a nutrient-rich grain.
Mr. Maguire, who previously worked at Gotham Bar & Grill, Tribeca Grill and Bouley, came to HELP USA in 2009 after a bad fall, which required multiple surgeries on both hands and his back and forced him out of restaurant kitchens.
He initially split the course between classroom and kitchen experience, with daily lectures, weekly quizzes and midterm and final exams. He soon overhauled it, making it an eight-week, full-time program focused on such hands-on training as dry-aging meats, baking hamburger and hot-dog buns and making cheese and pasta from scratch.
“You come in with a perceived notion of what homeless is,” said Mr. Maguire.
Initially, he assumed people became homeless because “didn’t want to work. That’s really not always the case. So my opinion of that has changed.”
Justin Fertitta was three years sober when he took a job at the Doe Fund, creating an elite culinary-training program. The former Aquavit and Waldorf Astoria chef embraced the chance to “use my skill set as a chef as well as helping people out in terms of a situation where they really needed a hand.”
Preparing graduates for restaurant jobs—where pay can be as high as $15 an hour, an improvement over institutional kitchens—goes beyond cooking skills, he said.
There’s an etiquette and hierarchy, not to mention impenetrable terminology “that isn’t going to be there unless you’ve spent time in those kitchens or gone to culinary school,” Mr. Fertitta said. “Guys that have either been institutionalized for many years or have been out of the loop in terms of society, they are really in need of a realistic look in terms of how the real world works.”
That means drilling them on replying “yes, chef” to orders: partly to show respect, partly to acknowledge they heard the instructions. “I like to really explain the whole picture with these guys because I think it will save them a lot of frustration and struggle in the future,” Mr. Fertitta said.
Several graduates of the Doe Fund program have gone on to work for Union Square Hospitality, the management company behind Gramercy Tavern, Union Square Cafe and other high-profile restaurants. Mr. Fertitta employs another alum in one of his restaurant-consulting gigs. Starting in November, the Shakespeare at the William Hotel will be accepting interns from the program, who will work full-time in the restaurant for two weeks.
Many participants are drawn to cooking because they associate it with happy memories, said Elsie Daniel, director of employment services for HELP USA. “They’ve cooked with their mothers or their grandmothers,” she said. That gives them an added drive, she said, “based on the connection.”
Mr. Williams used to cook with his mother. By age 11, he was making fried chicken and spaghetti and meatballs. When she was at work, leaving him alone to cook at home, he would pretend he was running his own restaurant.
That dream was shelved after years of drug-running, homelessness and a heroin addiction that finally prompted him to go to rehab. Now with a new home in the Bronx, a girlfriend, and a steady job at Del Posto, Mr. Williams dreams of his own soul-food restaurant, Calvin’s Country Kitchen.
Did he have a location picked out? “Why not go big?” he said with a laugh. “Why not New York?”