Rod’s Story: Cooking with Love Provides Food for the Soul

Interview by Kelli Taylor

I love cooking! I really do! I enjoy putting the plate together, being creative with it, knowing that somebody I don’t know from a can of paint ‘bout to enjoy this meal I’m putting together. That in itself is just heartwarming. Especially when the rush come and you got a rack of tickets up there and you got your team together and everybody’s on their station and you ready. You’re professional and you’re doing it, takin’ everything seriously, sanitation, your plate presentation, the whole nine! I wanna feed someone else the same way I wanna to be fed. You know?

Growing up, I always wanted to be a football player. I loved football. I excelled at it, I really did. But my senior year, I transferred schools. I made the team, but for the first time ever, I sat the bench for an entire game. And that just blew me! I went to the locker room at the end of the game, turned in my uniform and I never played organized football again. And that’s when my decline began, that’s when I went to the streets, drinkin’ and druggin’ and thuggin’ and carrying on.

My arrest record is like a phone book. It’s big. I’m 55. I’ve put in ’bout 23 years behind the fence– in installments. That’s insane!. They let me out, and I used to tell myself, You know what’s on the other side of the fence, Rod. You know that’s gonna take you away from your family. But I’d do it anyway. I just don’t know what it was.

I caught this last charge because I was drinking. I had a bad drinking problem. I wasn’t a social drinker. I had to get twisted. I was in a black out when I went into this restaurant, pulled out a knife and told these people “give me all your money.” I can’t remember none of it. I’m not trying to justify it. I did it. But my mama been sending’ up prayers for me all my life. Finally, something shifted. And, when I woke up on that gurney and got into that police car, I knew my life had to change. I said Rod, you can’t keep doing this. You got to learn to love yourself and want to enjoy life! The stuff you been doing, there ain’t nothin’ hip about it. This time was so different because I had started to think about my legacy. I knew I had to be there for my family. I owe, and I am obligated to them to change my life.

While I was incarcerated at a federal prison in Petersburg, Virginia, I met Free Minds through a program there and began to participate in their Prison Book Club.

Rod stands in front of a board that says "The Untold Story of the Real Me"

Rod in the office with one of his favorite books, Slugg: A Boy’s Life in the Age of Mass Incarceration by Tony Lewis Jr.

As soon as I got released in January, I came to the Free Minds office. Ms. Keela referred me to DC Central Kitchen’s 14-week Culinary Training Program. Personally, I didn’t need to learn how to cook because I’d worked in kitchens at various times in my life. But I needed the daily self-empowerment program, where you take all the garbage you got in you—your quirks, your anger issues, your temptations–and you put it on the table and you go from there. Cause if you can’t get that out the way and deal with it, you’re not gonna make it in nobody’s kitchen!

The people at DC Central Kitchen are phenomenal. Thing about it was, just about everybody over there came through the program themselves and came with some baggage. So they have walked in our shoes. They not only teach you how to cook, but how to reenter society and succeed.

I am just thrilled to be back in the kitchen. I’m at home. That’s my comfort zone and I feel good! I want to grow in my career and I know that I’m gonna excel. I want to be able to pull people up with me. I am going into it with a humble attitude. I want it to be an enjoyable experience, which it will because I’m a different person today. I’m off the streets.

What I’ve learned is if you want something out of life, you have to work for it. And that’s the honest piece. You must give something, to get something! I think I’m worth a whole lot. So I’m gonna grind on the legitimate as much as I can! ‘Til I can’t do it anymore. So I wish that men coming home from prison would just make the decision to say, Man, that’s enough. I want to LIVE today! We wasn’t living’ when we was out there doing that s*** we was doing. C’mon man! Look at the good people out here in the world. It’s hip to be square today (laughs).

Free Minds Member Rod graduated from DC Central Kitchen’s 14-week Culinary Job Training Program. He started his new job at the downtown DC location of a renowned international restaurant chain. He has been clean and sober from alcohol, drugs and cigarettes for two full years. Rod is now working two jobs and doing community outreach as a Free Minds Poet Ambassador, sharing his story to educate the community and stop the cycle of violence and incarceration.

A letter Rod wrote to Free Minds prior to his release:
A letter signed with #SoonToBeSuccessStory

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