(The Tennessean) Ten months ago, a career in the culinary field was far from the thoughts of James Jones and Wiley Walker Jr.
The two had spent years struggling with drug and alcohol addictions, working at multiple odd jobs and trying to re-create their lives all over the country. Jones served in the Army. Walker spent some time in college. And they were both homeless.
"I was in my van and I would sleep at Wal-Mart," Walker said. "I would wake up in the morning and think, 'Oh, my God, people can see me sleeping here. I'm so embarrassed.' I thought, 'This ain't where I'm supposed to be.' "
Last summer, Brett Swayn, a former homeless man himself, connected with Jones and Walker through different programs in Nashville as he prepared to open The Cookery, a new cafe and culinary training program for homeless men.
On March 11, Jones and Wiley were the first to graduate from Swayn's five-month program at the 12th Avenue restaurant.
"It gave me some hope," Jones said. "It made me realize I got more to live for than being where I was at before — homeless. It just helped me out tremendously."
Swayn, also a former chef at Fleming's, taught the pair everything from knife skills to how to follow recipes — the dishes at the restaurant are made from scratch — to food presentation.
"I'm not going to make these guys super chefs in that time," Swayn said. "You can't. But what we can do is prepare them to go get a job out there."
Students of the program also are given a place to stay via Swayn's LambsCroft Ministries.
Walker and Jones learned to make salad dressings, breads and dry rubs to use in dishes such as Cajun-style white fish lettuce wraps, the Rockin' Moroccan Orange Chicken Salad, the Down Under Wonder Blunder burger and more.
While Jones had worked as a cook in the restaurant industry before, Walker's closest tie to cooking was a few stints at fast food restaurants.
Working in The Cookery kitchen was a different world.
"You've got to look at the recipe," said Walker, "and it says you've got to get a tablespoon of oregano, and I'm like, 'Oregano? I've heard of it, but I don't know what it looks like.' So I'm looking all around. Eventually it started to make sense a little bit."
Even though they now have the skills, customers' responses continue to surprise them.
"It's a good feeling for somebody to say, 'Oh, this is delicious.' I'm like, 'really?' " Walker said.
During the graduation ceremony, Walker and Jones cooked and served casseroles, appetizers and more to family, staff and members of their church, Covenant Presbyterian Church in Green Hills.
"My brother, when he was here, he ate some of my sausage rolls and some of my food and went back home and told his wife and my mother and said, 'I think that food was catered — it was too good,' " Jones laughed. "No, I made that."
While The Cookery has created new openings for Jones and Walker, their church also has provided a close community for them.
"I give them as much credit for helping me along as The Cookery," Walker said. "They're really supportive. A lot of the members come by and eat or just listen."
There also is a chapel tucked behind the kitchen at The Cookery, offering cooks and customers a place to find peace and solace. A pastor performs a service there every Sunday before the restaurant opens.
Jones and Walker currently work Tuesdays through Sundays at The Cookery, preparing orders and talking to customers. Jones' goal is to stay at The Cookery as both a cook and mentor for others, and to work with Swayn to help the program grow.
While Walker loves his job at The Cookery, he hasn't given up on his lifelong dream of a computer science career.
"I've developed a real close relationship with Brett and everyone here, so it's kind of like a new family, from being basically by myself and alone. So I really value that, but I also have a desire to one day to be able to support my own self and get back into society and be productive. ... It would be really hard to say no to computer classes."
As for Swayn, he'll continue to search for new soon-to-be cooks, taking a chance on even "the bitter ones" in hopes of offering new beginnings to more homeless men in Nashville.
Reach Jen Todd
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If you go
• What:The Cookery
• Where:1827 12th Ave. S.
• Hours: 10:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 8:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Saturday, noon-2 p.m. Sunday
• Details:www.thecookery.org, 615-269-2911
More about it
The Cookery is the brainchild of Brett Swayn and partner Terry Kemper, who passed away last month. In addition to serving breakfast, lunch and dinner to the public, The Cookery provides a culinary training program to select homeless individuals to prepare them for employment in Nashville's food industry. Currently there are two men in the program.
All revenue from The Cookery goes back into the pair's Lambscroft Ministries and its programs to serve Nashville's homeless. Those programs include The Upper Room, a shelter in the Connection Pointe gymnasium that is open on Wednesday and Saturday nights, giving up to 90 homeless people a hot meal and a safe place to sleep; Discipleship House, two homes occupied by formerly homeless men who pay a modest rent; and C.I.T.Y (Church in the Yard), a Sunday service held in the yard of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church with the homeless community, followed by a meal and fellowship.
For information on how to get involved, visit http://lambscroft.igcphotography.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image credit: John Partipilo / The Tennessean