Lakisha Hunter went from gang leader to chef. Now she's showing others the way

The proprietor of Chicago's That Jerk Spot is easing youngsters with legal issues into restaurant careers.
Lakisha Hunter is part of the National Restaurant Association's HOPES program. / Photo courtesy of National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation

Back in her gang-banger days, Lakisha Hunter was fine on the streets of Chicago’s notorious South Side. The stove of her family’s nasty-looking kitchen was what daunted her.  The eldest of eight children who seldom saw their drug-addicted parents, the teen felt obliged to keep her siblings from starving. But how the heck do you cook chicken necks?

Her brother had been given a batch by the supermarket where he lugged patrons’ groceries in hopes of getting tipped. All that separated eight hungry youngsters from a rare hot meal was making the necks edible. But neither parent had imparted that knowhow between their frequent disappearances.

Hunter decomposed the meal, recalling how it’d been served to her many a time. There was usually rice with the chicken, so she rummaged through the nearly bare cabinets and came up with a bag that contained nearly as many bugs as it did rice kernels. The youngster plucked out the black specks, figured out how to cook the rice and necks through trial and error, and fed the family that night—and many a night afterward.

It was a role she assumed even as she became a young gang leader and a frequent target of the police; she would be arrested 26 times, though never subjected to prison.

Today Hunter is a chef with her own Jamaican fusion catering business and food truck, both named That Jerk Spot. She’s also earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in religious and ministry studies, is an ordained elder of her church, and teaches culinary arts at the high school level. She’s just finished writing her first book, all while raising two boys, aged 6 and 15, and being a stepmom to a third.  

Today, she’s the one who’s rescuing at-risk ex-offenders like she once was. Hunter uses her businesses to provide a job to teens and adults who have trouble finding work because of past run-ins with the law. At any given time, That Jerk Spot employs from four to six participants in the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s HOPES program, an initiative aimed at easing the restaurant industry’s labor crunch by training and employing ex-offenders, though the preferred term is “judicially involved.”

"I pray HOPES goes around this world."

Video courtesy of HOPES

The HOPES participants work six hours a day for three days per week over a four-week stretch. Not counting the group currently in Hunter’s employ, 11 youngsters have participated to date.

“I start them off on sanitation, because that’s the foundation for everything,” Hunter says.

The individuals also show up with the rudimentary credentials they need to pursue a life outside of work. Lawrence Hall, a neighborhood group that administers the HOPES program locally, works with the participants to ensure they can obtain a Social Security card, a copy of their birth certificate and a license or other form of state identification. Without those basics, they can't rent an apartment, open a bank account or apply for work.

The participants, whom Hunter calls students, then learn such hard and soft skills as how to deal with customers, how to cash out at the end of a shift, and even how to make a bank run.

They’re also held to rules they’ll need to follow as jobholders. For instance, “if you don’t show up, you don’t get paid,” says Hunter.

She teaches, but she’s not a life counselor for the students. “I’m not going to try to talk them out of being in a gang. That’s not my job,” Hunter says. Still, she acknowledges, “I wanted these kids to feel like they belong to something.”  And if they bring up gang life, she has perspective and credibility.

Hunter discounts the effort that’s required. “It’s not tough—anyone can do this if they want” she says. “You’re just teaching them what you know.”

She also swats away the notion that the HOPES participants would think twice about disrespecting someone with her street smarts and inner toughness. She has the teacher’s gift of speaking with authority. Hearing her talk about the importance of appearances, a journalist interviewing her silently curses that his shoes could use a shine.

The HOPES program relies on instructional modules and processes that were trailblazed for the Educational Foundation’s Restaurant Ready program, an initiative aimed at helping at risk youths find purpose and a career in foodservice.

Hunter also draws on her experiences with ProStart, the Foundation's signature talent-development program. The initiative, now in its 25th year, provides a head start into the foodservice industry for teens who prefer a nontraditional high school educational track. It also provides a head start for those who want to pursue a career in foodservice, either in management or the culinary aspect of the business. Parents, educators and participants hail it as a salvation for youngsters who might have otherwise dropped out, tuned out or chosen a dead-end path.

Hunter is a graduate of ProStart, and credits it with setting her toward life as a chef. Once, in high school, she heard two teachers arguing over a difficult student. One thought the youngster in question was a lost cause. The other insisted the girl just needed something to aim for, something to give her a cause and some structure.

Hunter realized they were discussing her. She confirmed that with the teacher arguing on her behalf. The educator galvanized the young gang leader with a challenge: “Rise above the ordinary,” Hunter recalls.

With the teacher's blessing, she embraced ProStart as her path.

Today, the forty-something is a teacher in the ProStart program.

And the name of her book? “Rise Above the Ordinary.”

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