“It’s not about how you start, it’s about how you finish. I started ugly, but look at me now.”
Michael is booked and busy. He’s the head chef at a senior living community, the owner of his own catering business and the father of a 3-year-old son—and he’s not stopping there. Fresh off winning “Best Dessert” for his banana pudding at a prestigious local event, “Mr. Pudding”—as the community has begun to call him—has his sights set on a food truck.
He’s passionate about what he does, and though he may have been working in the culinary industry since 2007, he’s only just beginning. “Food saved my life,” Michael said, “and it all started at Earle C. [Clements Job Corps].”
His story didn’t always seem as if it would have such a happy ending, though. Michael experienced a lot of hardship in his younger years. The oldest son of five children, he had to step up to help his single mother raise his siblings. That’s when Michael started cooking. His mother worked a lot, which meant he had to learn how to feed himself and his siblings—so his grandmother put him to work in her kitchen. He’s been chopping onions since the age of 3.
Growing up in a rough neighborhood in Miami took its toll on Michael in his teenage years, from drugs to violence. After losing his football scholarships due to a burst appendix that took him out of the game, things took a turn for the worse, and he wound up expelled from high school. His father stepped in and got him enrolled at a different school so he could get his diploma—and then he told Michael about Job Corps.
Michael’s dad is an alumnus himself; he graduated from Earle C. Clements Job Corps in the 1980s. So, on the advice of his father, Michael left Miami behind and traveled to Kentucky to start career training at his dad’s alma mater. A new environment and a fresh start would do him good, but adjusting to life on campus wasn’t easy at first.
“I wasn’t used to having all those rules in my life,” Michael said. “I did what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it. When I went to Earle C., I was like, ‘What? I’m not doing all this.’ But I did it.” The structure turned out to be just the thing he needed, and Michael says he still lives the same way, careful to do everything on time.
“Now I’m a chef, and everything that I learned at Job Cops is exactly what I still do now. I’ve done every job in a restaurant … and I learned it all at Earle C.”
He loved his time in the program, from traveling across the country for intramural sports to competing in the Job Corps “Iron Chef” competition, to meeting lifelong friends whose children are now friends with his son. Best of all, though, was what he learned in the Culinary Arts program. He praises his instructor, Jenny Johnson, for teaching him everything he needed to know.
Michael has struggled with alcoholism for most of his life, but he recently got sober with the support of his wife. He says his newfound focus has helped his catering business boom. As much as he’s ambitious about his culinary career, one of Michael’s real passions in life is mentoring young black men. The two go hand in hand in his business. He hires a lot of high schoolers to work for him and acts as their mentor, teaching them culinary skills and showing them that they have every path open to them to succeed in the world.
Michael says that, for a long time, he thought his only options were sports or the streets—but Job Corps taught him that he could be so much more. That’s the lesson he wants to share with the young men he mentors.