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This Chef's Culinary Program Gives Felons A Second Chance12:18
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When 40-year-old Quintin Storey looks back on his life, there are some chapters he'd like to forget. Instead, he likes to reflect on his early life as a kid in Sebring, Fla., growing up surrounded by family, music and faith.

"My childhood was very, very religious," Quintin says. "I was raised in the church, and I was always in church services. I was involved in sports — baseball, basketball. Basically just a happy, normal childhood."

But when Quintin was 10, his family life started to unravel. His parents divorced, and he couldn't reconcile their separation with his deep Christian beliefs. He started smoking pot. The wrong crowd at school made a deep impression on him.

"Once I graduated high school and got my diploma, everyone around me — all of my classmates — were like, 'Let's get drunk, let's party,' " Quintin says. "And I started doing that, and that was like my biggest downfall. That was the worst thing ever happened to me was for me to pick up a drink."

He started living what he calls "street life" — abusing alcohol, using drugs and sometimes selling them, too. And in June 1999, when Quintin was 20, he made a terrible mistake: He shot and killed a man after entering a rooming house in Highlands County, Fla. Quintin won't discuss what happened, but he was arrested and charged with second-degree murder. He was sent to prison for nearly 20 years.

During his incarceration, Quintin got sober and started working toward finding who he really was. He says he had always followed the crowd, which always led to trouble — even in prison. That all changed when he started working in the prison kitchen.

"I was always trying to find my passion in life," Quintin says. "And my grandfather -- he's from Georgia — so he was big on his cooking, and I looked up to him a lot, and something just clicked one day like a light bulb. I knew then — I want to be a cook."

In January 2018, Quintin was released from prison after serving 19 years and 7 months in a state penitentiary in Florida. He moved to Tallahassee, where he needed help starting over.

"I was always trying to find my passion in life. And my grandfather ... he was big on his cooking, and I looked up to him a lot, and something just clicked one day like a light bulb. I knew then -- I want to be a cook."

Quintin Storey

That's when he heard about Rebecca Kelly-Manders, a 45-year-old classically trained chef and founder of the REfire Culinary Program.

Rebecca's program, named after a kitchen slang that means to correct a mistake, aims to train members of a population that is often shunned and rejected by employers: people with felony convictions.

She launched REfire in the fall of 2017. The program is two months long and teaches students skills like knife handling and food safety. The program also helps students pass the National Restaurant Association's ServSafe certification exam.

"I often joke that I take the first nine months of culinary school and smush it down into eight weeks," Rebecca says.

Rebecca says it's her responsibility to pass on the grace that was once given to her to someone else. That sense of paying it forward has ties to her own experience; she has two felony convictions herself.

"I got my first felony conviction in 1995," Rebecca says. "I was barely 22. And I was embezzling money from my employer to cover up my drug and alcohol problem."

Her struggle with addiction continued as she moved to Florida and got her second theft felony in 1997. That same year, Rebecca had her last drink.

As she worked in restaurants, Rebecca — like Quintin — realized cooking was her true passion. Once she finished her eight years of probation, she started to really think about her future. And at 29, Rebecca decided to go to culinary school.

After graduating and nearly a decade of working for other people, she decided to take a chance and start her own food truck, Street Chefs, and later, her own cafe — Yes! Chef. She wanted her newfound success to mean something more, though. So she started training other people who had felony convictions.

"I had a sous chef that worked for me on my truck a few years ago and he used to say, 'It ain't a real kitchen unless there's a felon on the grill,' and no truer words have ever been spoken," Rebecca says.

One of the people Rebecca helped was Quintin Storey. He entered the program in February 2018, and eight weeks later, he crossed a graduation stage with a chef's hat on his head, a certificate proudly displayed in his hands.

Quintin Storey at the REfire Culinary Program graduation in 2018. (Photo by Heather Drymon/Saorsa Images)
Quintin Storey at the REfire Culinary Program graduation in 2018. (Photo by Heather Drymon/Saorsa Images)

"I was so happy," Quintin says. "To get some kind of certification to where I can hold it in my hand. I felt great. I really did."

Quintin was a star student, but he was still having difficulty finding a job; his past was casting shadows on his achievements.

Rebecca decided she would step in again.  She hired Quintin as her right-hand man, naming him supervisor of the cafe and also the food protection manager at the Big Bend Homeless Coalition, where the REfire program is housed.

Quintin says Rebecca's help goes beyond just hiring him: she gave him a chance when no one else would.

"My darkest past can be a beacon of light for somebody else. I can say, 'Hey, look what I've walked through. You can walk through this, too. Let me show you how I did it.' "

Rebecca Kelly-Manders

"My felony conviction was something that was basically a wall that was built up to where it was difficult for me to get a chance," Quintin says. "And Rebecca helped to tear that wall down."

Now Rebecca and Quintin work side-by-side as colleagues and as friends.

"My darkest past can be a beacon of light for somebody else," Rebecca says. "I can say, 'Hey, look what I've walked through. You can walk through this, too. Let me show you how I did it.' "

And Rebecca says she'll continue on her mission to help people like Quintin find their place in the kitchen and in the world.

This segment aired on May 21, 2019.

Andrea Asuaje Twitter Reporter/Producer, Kind World
Andrea Asuaje is a reporter and producer in WBUR’s iLab, where she makes Kind World. She is honored to share these emotional and impactful stories of hope, love and compassion with the WBUR audience.

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