Star Chef Curtis Stone Hires the Formerly Homeless and Incarcerated at His Hollywood Restaurant

"You have to throw the whole notion of a background check away: I know you've been homeless. You may have gone to prison. That's all right with me," says the 'Top Chef' star of his staffing approach, in partnership with L.A. organization Chrysalis, at his restaurants Maude and Gwen.

Before landing his current job as a runner at Gwen, Curtis Stone's meat-centric year-old Hollywood hotspot, Steven Ransom, 34, struggled to find employment. "I had a record," Ransom says. "You know how that goes."

But at Gwen — and at Stone's Beverly Hills restaurant, Maude — the chef, 41, also a star of reality shows including Top Chef Masters, has implemented a hiring policy that gives a second chance to those who have battled homelessness, incarceration and drug addiction. Job seekers aren’t summarily disqualified from consideration because of past mistakes. "You have to throw the whole notion of a background check away: I know you've been homeless. Now you may have gone to prison. That's all right with me," says Stone of his staffing approach, run in partnership with L.A. homeless organization Chrysalis.

The chef has now hired around a dozen employees, nearly 15 percent of his total staff, who have been clients at Chrysalis, which offers job-hunting courses, transitional employment (often on downtown clean-up crews) and ongoing support. One unexpected benefit of the association: Staff turnover is much lower among his Chrysalis employees. "These guys stick around," says Stone. "They appreciate the opportunity. Our experience has been a really positive one where they've committed to be loyal, long-standing employees." Adds Chrysalis CEO Mark Loranger, "Curtis and a handful of other businesses that we work with have recognized the value of working with programs like ours. We just need to have more employers looking at it from that perspective."

Among the L.A. restaurants that extend a similar helping hand are Clifton's Republic in downtown, where there are nine workers who have gone through a self-sufficiency program at nonprofit Midnight Mission on Skid Row. At Bouchon in Beverly Hills, chef Thomas Keller instituted an internship for formerly gang-involved men and women after philanthropy guru Ellen Ziffren introduced him to the work of Homeboy Industries. "Most people who walk through our door have never held a job in their whole lives. We help them become resilient enough to get and keep a job. For someone like Thomas Keller to trust someone and give them their first chance in the for-profit world is pretty tremendous," says Homeboy CEO Tom Vozzo. One former intern, Laneshia Allen, now works at Bouchon full-time as a chef. Kevin Velez and Alisha Ruiz returned to work at Homeboy after their four-month stints at Bouchon. Velez is now the group’s premier croissant maker at its bakery while Ruiz is a manager at downtown's Homegirl Cafe. "I came to Homeboy basically straight out of rehab. I didn't have anything to offer anybody," says Ruiz, 30, who now has full custody of her 13-year-old daughter.

Stone first heard about Chrysalis four years ago through his general manager. Soon after, he made his first hire via the organization: Darrell Stevenson, 54, who started as a dishwasher at Maude and has worked his way up the ranks to become back-of-house manager at Gwen. "I grew up right here in Hollywood," says Stevenson, whose father is songwriter and former Motown Records vp William "Mickey" Stevenson. The younger Stevenson did prison time for drug use. He now oversees all hiring through Chrysalis. "It's actually Darrell picking up the phone and saying I need someone for this or that. Which is really cool because he’s potentially speaking to someone who helped him get his first placement," says Stone. Among Stevenson's hires have been Ransom — who says he knew of Stone's TV career because his "aunt watches the shows" — as well as Byron Taylor, 33, who is an assistant manager at Gwen. "I come from a small town in Texas," says Taylor. "When I got to L.A., I was just lost. No family. No friends. What I've mostly found here is that you need to know somebody in order to get a job. So for guys like us who may not have so many friends and family members, Chrysalis acts as that family member to give a connection into society." He credits Stone and the chef's brother, managing owner Luke Stone, with "completely changing my life. I've been looking for a place in life to become a man and they gave me that opportunity," says Taylor, who says he now feels self-sufficient. He recently flew to Texas to visit his 13-year-old son on his birthday. "It was the first birthday we've ever been together."

Stone's experience with Chrysalis inspired him to make it the centerpiece of his program #commit2one, which focuses his charitable efforts on one cause every 12 months. In June, he and his wife, actress Lindsay Price, auctioned off a private dinner for 12 at Chrysalis' annual Butterfly Ball; it raised $30,000. And he intends to invite fellow restaurateurs to a lunch at Gwen this summer that will be cooked by his Chrysalis employees.

"I won't tell them that to start," says Stone. "I'll say, 'These are the guys who cooked your lunch and here's my experience with it. Who in this room struggles with staff retention?' And there won't be a hand that doesn't go up. And I'll say, 'I've got a solution for that.' I'm sure people will think, 'But what's the compromise?' Well, we haven't found doing this to be a compromise."

A version of this story first appeared in the July 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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