Since Henry Howard’s release from prison in 2006, the longtime San Francisco chef has been all about second chances.
After spending nearly five years in prison for distributing narcotics, Howard found himself in a position to help transitional homeless and ex-offenders when he opened the doors to the Red Rose Culinary Academy earlier this month.
Through a grant from the Northern California Service League, which provides vocational training for ex-offenders, homeless and veterans, the 16-week curriculum will teach seven students basic cooking methods including spices, knife skills and safety and sanitation methods. The school is designed to help students transition back into society and the workplace.
“At the end of the rainbow, we take them and place them in jobs,” said Service League case manager Keith Anderson. “Not only to maintain employment, but to sustain employment.”
For Howard, it’s also a way of giving people a second chance — like the one he once received.
Since his teenage years, Howard had wanted to be a chef like his father. At 18, he enrolled at City College of San Francisco’s culinary arts program and cooked his way around The City. He moved to Idaho in 1988 to work in the kitchen at Boise State University. But he also started pushing narcotics. And after he was foolish enough to pay for back surgery in cash, the feds eventually caught him. He spent almost five years in prison.
In 2007, he returned to San Francisco. At a YMCA BBQ where Howard was working the grill, he met pastor Erris Edgerly with Brothers for Change, a Fillmore community group. Edgerly encouraged Howard to teach cooking classes. Their discussions eventually led to Howard serving as director of the culinary academy.
Every week now, Howard volunteers by cooking for community meetings. Lasagna is his specialty.
“I want to give people skills they can use for life,” Howard said. “I’ve got some techniques for lasagna that will make a blind man see.”
Amy Stikes was the first student to enroll. A homeless mother who works a part-time job, Stikes leaves her 5-year-old son under the care of her mother in a crowded two-bedroom apartment in Sunnydale.
Some nights, when no better housing option emerges, Stikes resorts to an unfrequented stairwell near her grandmother’s old apartment complex in the Fillmore. The warm thought of her grandmother, who died in recent months, brings her back to the building when she can’t find anywhere else to stay.
“I come back here because it makes me feel safe,” she said.
When she found out about the Red Rose Culinary Program, Stikes jumped on the opportunity.
“I just want to be able to have my own and provide for my son,” Stikes said.
For Stikes, joining the Red Rose Culinary Academy isn’t just a learning experience. It’s her golden ticket off the streets, into a steady job and potentially a home.