New nonprofit will help ex-cons learn culinary skills and find jobs

March 8 — Chef Fernando Ruiz discovered his passion for cooking behind bars.

He began working in prison kitchens when he was incarcerated in his late teens and early 20s, and went straight to culinary school upon his release.

But when he graduated in 1999, he couldn’t find a job.

The applications asked: “Have you been convicted of a crime?” and Ruiz, convicted of arms and drug trafficking, answered “yes.”

“I would never get a call back,” he recalls. He only found work after he started checking “No.”

“If they had found out later, they would have seen how I worked, so it was swept under the rug,” said Ruiz, who is now a three-time Food Network champion. He beat Bobby Flay and won the Guy’s Grocery Games and Chopped competitions, according to an online biography.

Twenty-five years later, Ruiz wants to help build the confidence of other incarcerated people — “If I can do it, they can do it,” he said — through the Northern Entrepreneurial Institute New Mexico, recently launched.

Ruiz co-founded the nonprofit with Ralph Martinez, a community activist in Española, and Jamai Blivin, founder and CEO of Santa Fe-based workforce development nonprofit Innovate +Educate.

State Rep. Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe, helped launch the initiative with a $75,000 allocation she secured during the 2023 legislative session. The co-founders expect other funding becomes available as the nonprofit grows.

The institute will offer culinary-centered reentry programs for people formerly incarcerated or at risk of incarceration.

Ruiz will guide groups of about 15 people through a free four-week culinary course, using a curriculum he developed over the last year.

The classes train participants in skills such as making sauces, butchering and cooking meat, he explained, and will cater to students’ personal interests. Each graduate will receive a food safety certification, a $1,500 stipend and a range of kitchen utensils. The nonprofit will then help them write a resume, prepare for interviews and start working in restaurants “from Santa Fe all the way to the Colorado border,” Martinez said.

Over the past two years, the co-founders have met with more than 35 northern New Mexico restaurateurs about their idea, owners of family restaurants as well as more upscale fine-dining establishments, and “have gotten nothing but positive results. support,” Martinez said. More than a dozen restaurants in Santa Fe and Española County have agreed to hire candidates who complete the program.

Meanwhile, other nonprofits, magistrate courts and parole offices in Santa Fe and Rio Arriba counties will publicize the program.

“We sat down with everyone,” Martinez said. “We built a whole resource center.”

The first group of students in the program will begin classes April 1 at the Kitchen Table in Santa Fe, a shared commercial kitchen. In a few months, classes will move to Ruiz’s next restaurant, Escondido, currently under construction in downtown Santa Fe and scheduled to open in June.

The founders’ main goal is to expand the classes to the Santa Fe County Jail and the New Mexico Penitentiary, both south of Santa Fe, to train anyone interested and help them get a job even before to leave the jail or prison, Martinez said.

The need is great, Blivin noted.

A 2017 study found that more than 1 in 13 Americans had a felony conviction in 2010. New Mexico has a higher incarceration rate than the U.S. average, at 733 inmates per 100,000 residents, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

Not everyone who joins the program will want to stay in the restaurant industry, but it will provide participants with a starting point, a community of peer support and transferable job skills, all of which are essential, Martinez said.

“Chief (Ruiz) and I know how easy it is to fall into a situation and how difficult it can be to get out of it, and we also know the healing that comes with rebuilding your life,” he said. he declares.

Born and raised in Spain, Martinez became addicted to cocaine and heroin in 2001 and was eventually charged with five felonies. He lost everything to his addiction, including his family and home, he said.

He underwent a series of rehabilitation programs and when he left a 90-day program in 2012, he was “arrested left and right” while applying for a job. “I come from a small community; I felt like everyone knew who I was and I was stereotyped,” he said.

Martinez found work because his case manager convinced a gas station manager to give him a chance.

His crimes have since been expunged and pardoned and he has become a fierce advocate for Española’s “most vulnerable,” including co-founding the Española Pathways homeless shelter and transitional living center, he said. declared.

“For Chef and I, if it wasn’t for someone giving us an opportunity, you know, we wouldn’t be here doing the things that we’re doing,” he said. “We know where an extra voice of support can take a person, so we want to be that for (others).”

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