When Dustin talks about cooking, his eyes light up and he instantly smiles. Dustin is a student in our current Job & Leadership Training program. He began cooking when he was just 5 years old- and he’s never stopped. “Cooking for other people and seeing their reaction, it made me feel so good. It made me feel so good that it became my passion to cook for other people,” he said.

The passion Dustin, pictured on the left above, has for cooking food is instantly recognizable as he starts telling me about his experiences and triumphs. When he got his first job at a restaurant when he was 17, he was promoted after only a few weeks from a dishwasher to cooking on the line. At 19 he was working at Longhorn Steakhouse, where he found his favorite food to cook: Grilled ribeyes with baked sweet potatoes. Later, Dustin worked at the Fox Theater making new items for their menu, including a lemon basil crème brûlée. When he was studying at L’Ecole Culinaire, his salmon plate took first place in a cooking competition.

Dustin tells me all of this with pride and excitement in his voice, but the real joy he gets out of cooking isn’t the awards. It’s the people. “The reaction you get from other people when they eat your food, they let you know if it’s good or not. You get to see their enjoyment,” he says.

Today, Dustin is one of our Job & Leadership Training students. After serving time in a St. Louis county jail, he is ready to move forward: “I’m just trying to get back on my feet now,” he explains. Our JLT program provides students with an 8-week paid internship from one of our corporate partners. When Dustin entered our program there wasn’t a culinary-based internship, but after seeing his strong passion and experience, we were able to find one for him at Stratton’s Cafe in Webster Groves.

“The thing I like about the JLT program is that you can tell everyone really cares,” he says. After each JLT session, our students emerge with a sense of brotherhood. This sense of brotherhood is already starting to take place in Dustin’s class, as Dustin and two of his classmates came to our office early one day to make dinner for the rest of the students.

When Dustin sat down on the day of his first JLT class, he recognized another student at his table, Jarrell, a friend he knows through his cousin. Jarrell didn’t recognize Dustin at first, but when he called Jarrell by his nickname, the memories fell into place. Dustin explains what happened next: “So then Jarrell started opening up, you know, so it felt really good. It felt like we were meant to be at the same table because he might not have connected with the program and kept going.”

Jarrell and Dustin are both currently students in our JLT program, supporting and encouraging each other as graduation gets closer and closer.