Food Network alum Chef Robert Stewart considers Baltimore a city that makes you feel lucky — lucky to make it out.
When Chef Stew, as he’s called, moved to Atlanta for a failed restaurant gig, it was the start of a career that would land him in the homes of celebrities and on the screens of every American with Food Network in their cable lineup.
But before Stewart, 39, tackled competition shows like “Guy’s Grocery Games” and “Cutthroat Kitchen,” his grandmother taught him how to cook as a child in her Sandtown home.
Now, he’s back.
“Secretly, it was a promise I made to myself: ‘If you’re able to get yourself out of this s---, then you do everything you can to get somebody else out,’ ” said Stewart, who lives in Las Vegas.
And this is his moment.
It took Stewart six years to breathe life into Transition Kitchen, a program to prepare Baltimoreans for jobs in the food industry. Now, the new fryer and fridge are installed and the stove and sink are waiting to be used. Stewart is enrolling students in hopes of starting classes in early September.
He envisions the renovated kitchen of the former Samuel F. B. Morse Elementary School in Southwest Baltimore’s Carrollton Ridge teeming with students learning proper chopping techniques, the difference between herbs and how to use correct kitchen terminology.
He’s going to teach them all of it so that one day, they may be able to cook for the likes of Shaquille O’Neal and Gabrielle Union, celebrities Chef Stew has already fed.
“The idea is to be a quick introductory course into the kitchen,” he said. “Once you come in and learn the basics of the industry, then you’re able to maneuver into different avenues with it.”
After graduating from the culinary program at Eastern Vocational Technical High School in Essex, Stewart worked odd jobs before he realized that cooking was his calling.
“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” he said. “You literally have everything you need to start your own business but the money. So I went after it full throttle.”
For five years, Stewart used that drive to work temporary jobs for staffing agencies in Atlanta. In each kitchen, he learned new tricks — and saved every t-shirt, apron and coat as proof of his resume.
Because of his own experiences, Stewart believes that Transition Kitchen can fill staffing agencies’ need for trained help and benefit Baltimore in the process.
Stewart knows many young people look up to the wealth and fame of rappers and NBA players. But those jobs are one in a million, he says. Food is a learn-on-the-job industry, where dishwashers can become pastry chefs if they stick around long enough.
“There’s no one for them to measure themselves up against. Most of the things that are being glorified promote detrimental behavior,” Stewart said. “I wanted to say, ‘Hey, this is a clear way to make things happen for yourself without having a bunch of degrees.’ ”
In the morning, Transition Kitchen will offer twice-weekly classes for 16 to 20 students ages 16 and older. The afternoon is reserved for a pastry program taught by Stewart’s childhood friend, pastry chef Gail McGee.
“I really want to motivate the children, especially the young ladies, because they see this as a male-dominated industry,” McGee said. “But it’s really not. There are a lot women doing their thing.”
The classes culminate in a written test and mini-cooking competition, then a Saturday event to celebrate top students and their families. Students with the highest scores will receive rewards and be selected to help train the next group.
“The people I cook for are the lure more than me,” Stewart said. “How did I get next to Shaq? It’s because I paid attention to sautéeing my green beans the right way.”
Stewart had originally developed a program for children, but decided a focus on older students would have more of an impact. Stewart believes the benefits of good jobs and good food will trickle down to the children and younger siblings of his students.
“In Baltimore, you’ve got a lot of what I call miniature adults,” Stewart said. “They’re 15, 16, but they’re running households.”
Raising money for a program that has no track record is one of the biggest challenges facing Transition Kitchen. Stewart was surprised by how many celebrities and organizations, even with Baltimore connections, declined to help him get the program off the ground.
“Once the training takes place and I place some of the students that will help people see that the program is proven, it works,” Stewart said.
Until then, he’s turned to crowdfunding to cover the cost of kits to get the first set of students started — roughly $200 apiece. Each student needs an apron, a hat, non-slip shoe covers, take-home containers and other items, plus the food used during training.
Stewart raised $20,000 for new equipment, and the nonprofit UEmpower of Maryland spent $38,000 to renovate the kitchen. The Baltimore Sun also donated several pieces of kitchen equipment from its building in Port Covington.*
Now Stewart is looking for $12,000 to fund 150 students over the course of three months, and $5,000 to pay quality trainers to help teach his students.
After three months of training, successful students will help run a grab-and-go catering business to cover some of the kitchen’s expenses.
Originally, Stewart planned to set up shop in a warehouse in Northeast Baltimore. After the large space became unmanageable, he joined forces with UEmpower of Maryland, which has worked with Carrollton Ridge children for several years and manages other food-related programs out of the former elementary school kitchen.
“We really liked [Chef Stew’s] style and his mission,” said Kosmas “Tommie” Koukoulis, a UEmpower co-founder and local restaurant owner. “The focus for us is the kids, but we acknowledge that we can’t help the kids without helping the family, too.”
The city will pay rent, water and electric bills in the space for one year, giving Stewart a deadline to prove Transition Kitchen works.
For Stewart, Transition Kitchen is only partly about a tasty meal, or even a job. It’s about showing the country that Baltimore’s story is more than what they saw on “The Wire” or the evening news during the Freddie Gray protests.
“It’s bigger than pots and pans, eggs and bacon,” he said. “This s--- can change people’s mentality. We have to have another way to bring awareness to our city.”
McGee and Stewart hope the pastry program will serve as the first ambassador. They envision students bringing cookies and cupcakes to local police stations and meeting officers. Later, they’ll invite cops to the kitchen. In a city as small as Baltimore, Stewart said, it is really possible to build connections between the police and students in a year’s time.
Stewart wants his students to form friendships that stretch across racial, social and neighborhood lines. And he knows he has at least one taker: 19-year-old Christopher Stewart met Chef Stew two years ago.
“They brought me off the street to teach me good things in life, like learning how to cook, to help the community,” said Chris Stewart, who is not related to the chef. “I want to be able to teach the other kids and bring them off the street.”
After helping install the kitchen, Chris Stewart will finally get to use it this fall as a member of the first Transition Kitchen class. He wants to be like Chef Stew — move out west and cook on TV.
“I need to know way more than I know now, but I’m going to get there,” Chris Stewart said. “I believe in Chef Stew every step of the way.”
*Clarification: This article has been updated to include funds spent by UEmpower of Maryland to renovate the former Samuel F. B. Morse Elementary School and kitchen equipment donated from the Baltimore Sun's building in Port Covington.