When Carmen Rodriguez was two years old, his grandmother would put him in a makeshift baby carrier and take him into the fields as she picked produce. Growing up, he traveled from Chicago to Texas, North Dakota and California with his migrant farmworker family, picking melons, potatoes, strawberries, lettuce, and corn. The first meal he ever cooked was bean and cheese burritos, strapped to the radiator of the family car to keep them warm.
His home base was a rough neighborhood in Chicago, and as the only boy in the family, there was no one to protect him from the gangs. When he was eight years old, a l4-year-old boy was being forced to jump into a Latin gang and, as a rite of passage, “had to beat the crap out of the first kid he saw. I was that kid,” Rodriguez says. His survival instincts kicked in, and instead he beat up the older kid. The gang recruited him that day. He ran away from home at 13 and lived on the streets of Chicago. He ran packages for the gang, broke into homes for the gang, robbed people on the street and sold drugs for the gang.
But after a dressing-down by the local police, he decided to get a job. He started washing dishes at an Italian restaurant, lying about his age. One day, one of the line cooks didn’t show for his shift. Rodriguez decided to help the line and “when the chef came into the kitchen and saw that I was on his line cooking his food, he grabbed the dish that I had just cooked, shrimp scampi, and launched the dish, bowl and all, against the furthest wall in the kitchen. Chef then grabbed me by the back of my neck and screamed in my face, ‘I pay you to wash fucking dishes, not fuck up my food!’
“When I told this to my gang friends, they wanted to burn down his restaurant. I think this is when it hit me that what I was doing with the gang was not going to get me anywhere, so I convinced them that it wasn’t worth our time. I returned to work the next day, and started cleaning and washing dishes. Chef got there and looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Guess you’re not a punk.’ He took me under his wing and taught me all about the business of restaurants. Chef passed away five years ago, and I learned that he had tasted my shrimp scampi, and that’s how he knew that I was not a punk.”
Rodriguez worked his way up from line cook to kitchen manager to sous chef to executive chef. His credits include some of the top restaurants in Santa Barbara, Tampa, Palm Springs, and Santa Fe, where he now lives. In 2012, he was named the New Mexico Chef of the Year, awarded by the New Mexico Restaurant Association.
Two years ago, Rodriguez was contacted by Labor Of Love, which promotes and celebrates the 50,000 largely invisible and unrecognized migrant farmworkers in Yuma, Arizona, by performing “random acts of kindness” like delivering boxes with Thanksgiving dinner and supplying them with blankets and cushions. As Rodriguez delivered 500 gourmet meals to the farmworkers, “the memories of when I was a young boy working in the fields started to creep back into my mind,” he says. “I saw my grandparents sitting around on their breaks and talking about the food we were picking, and how one day we’d be out of work. Then I heard my grandfather say eso nunca va pasar: “Our people will always be in the fields.” The past suddenly slammed into the present and the future, and I knew that I had to give back, to help kids who were lost and troubled and in survival mode like I had been.”
Back in Santa Fe, he and his wife, Penny, had worked tangentially with YouthWorks, a Santa Fe-based nonprofit for at-risk kids. Last year, Rodriguez sat down with Melynn Schuyler, YouthWorks’ executive director, to discuss a brewing crisis: 1,500 young people turn l9 in Santa Fe every year, and over 40 percent of them never graduate from high school, making it difficult for them to land regular employment. Because of the high price of rentals, thousands of them are effectively homeless.
Schuyler had a dream for the future of the YouthWorks Culinary Program, and Rodriguez was the dream person to run it. Rodriguez immediately agreed to the job, knowing how education and positive encouragement can improve young lives. “I have seen immediate satisfaction in my customers,” Rodriguez says. “But to see a young person who has had so many problems in his or her life, be able to look you in the eye and speak to you with confidence and respect, is more satisfying that any comment I have received about my food from a guest.”
The Culinary Program has launched a wildly successful food truck. With Rodriguez and his wife at the helm, they serve up affordable and delicious dishes like charred brussels sprouts tossed in spicy Korean barbecue sauce ($7), with a $2 add-on of achiote pineapple chicken. For sweets, customers love the Pig Newtons –– two graham cracker biscuits filled with spicy pork-belly candy, bacon and fig jam ($6). And the YouthWorks Catering Service is cooking at public and private events for high-profile clients like the American Institute of Architects, the Mayor of Santa Fe, the Spanish Colonial Arts Museum and the Nation of Makers Conference.
It isn’t always easy when kids are having problems and don’t show up for work. “My job is wrangling sabertooth kittens!” Penny jokes. But the satisfaction outweighs the tough stuff. Kids who are successful in the program are getting placed in local restaurants.
Erin, one of Culinary Program’s young apprentices, says it’s the most fun job she has ever had. “Everyone wants to be bettering their personal situation, and I’m working with some of the hardest-working people I know.” she says. And Jackie, a former student who is now a sous chef at YouthWorks, says, “Working with YouthWorks and chef Carmen in the kitchen has brought a new purpose to my life. Teaching and learning how to cook and put on events has opened my eyes to the bigger need of food and food service in my community. When I watch the crew in action, it makes me proud and you can see them also being proud of themselves.”
Rodriguez recently placed another YouthWorks alum, Joe, in a friend’s restaurant as a pantry cook. A month later, Joe called him to say that the owner was so impressed with his skills that he was promoting him to the hot line. “In my toughest chef voice that I could muster, I told Joe, ‘Don’t fuck this up,’ and he answered ‘Yes, chef.’ I had to pull over and wipe tears of pride from my eyes. I knew how the Italian chef had felt when he tasted my shrimp scampi.”