Whisk: the eatery where ex-offenders are starting over

The Root

By: Peniel E. Joseph

At Whisk, a great bistro in Boston’s North End, chef Jeremy Kean is helping ex-offenders get their lives back on track through a re-entry program that offers both food and food for the soul.

 I paid my first visit to Whisk after it was recommended to me by The Roots editor-in-chief, Henry Louis Gates Jr., who accidentally ventured into the restaurant one night and came away energized and inspired.

The meal was one of the best I’ve had, and the story behind Whisk is as compelling as the food served.

After a scrape with the law on a drug charge several years ago, Kean found himself residing in New Jersey’s Mercer County Correction Center—the only white inmate locked up in a gang unit.

Searching for employment as a condition of his probation, he began working for Boston restaurateur Barbara Lynch and found his passion in cooking. His apprenticeship included no formal training, a circumstance that’s made the affable Kean open to innovation.

Cooking saved Kean, becoming a way not only to make a living but also to touch people’s lives. And after leaving his jail cell in Trenton, N.J., Kean wouldn’t forget the inmates he befriended. He joined forces with Haley House, a nonprofit that helps the jobless and homeless employ ex-offenders.

His most promising protégé is Emmanuel “Big Bop” Taylor. Taylor has been working for Kean for 15 months, after doing a little over two years at Boston’s South Bay correctional facility on a gun charge. Curious about what he described as the “protocols” of running a restaurant kitchen, Big Bop developed an instant bond with Kean, and the two have forged an unlikely friendship. A bighearted father of four, Taylor is in the process of turning his life around. The transformation hasn’t always been easy and remains incomplete.

“I know what it’s like to be in the struggle,” observed Taylor. “But now that’s all changed. I feel like God has angels mentoring me.”

Both Kean’s and Taylor’s stories form a small part of the sprawling odyssey of mass incarceration in America, a narrative that’s entered the mainstream consciousness through works like Michelle Alexander’s 2010 best-seller, The New Jim Crow.

African Americans currently account for 1 million of the country’s 2.3 million  total incarcerated population, and one in three black males can expect to spend time in prison during their lifetimes in America. But the mind-numbing statistics tell only a partial story.

Thousands of ex-offenders cycle in and out of the criminal-justice system because of a lack of education, job training and basic necessities, including food and shelter. Federal, state and local expenditures on mechanisms of punishment dwarf resources dedicated to prisoner re-entry in the United States.

That’s where Kean and Taylor come in.

Their stories offer a human face to the cold statistics of not just mass incarceration but the very idea of second chances and rehabilitation among ex-offenders. Both men readily admit to having made costly mistakes in their youth, but they are committed to turning their lives around, and they’ve done so in truly remarkable ways.

And their stories remind me during this holiday season that the greatest gift that each of us can give our fellow human beings is forgiveness and compassion. Imagine if we lived in a nation where drug use was treated as a health issue (like alcoholism) and we deployed billions of dollars to rehabilitation and treatment rather than punishment and prisons. Imagine a more just society, where we provided employment at a living wage for ex-offenders, including opportunities for affordable housing, job training, education, child care and health care.

This would be tantamount to the revolution of values that Martin Luther King Jr. pursued throughout his life and what, during this holiday season, we should all be striving for. For now, though, let’s applaud the small acts of heroism by businesses like Whisk and individuals like Jeremy Kean and Big Bop Taylor. They embody that spirit through self-determination and acts of sheer will.