'Going Straight' into the Kitchen

Nov 22, 2011

For most of us, Thanksgiving means food and gratitude. One culinary student here in the Commonwealth believes his life has been defined by both. Jackson Hodges gently places chicken breasts in a frying pan of oil in his tidy kitchen in Louisville. His white T-shirt is as spotless as his floor. Today he is a culinary student at Louisville’s Sullivan University on a scholarship worth over $40,000. He is on the honor roll. At 45, he is late bloomer, but he doesn’t mind.

Yet if past is prologue, as Shakespeare said, the prologue to this story is one of despair. About four years ago, Hodges was addicted to crack cocaine. Jail and homelessness were his companions.

“Getting high used to be fun, then it quickly turned into a job, you know? I’m scurrying around like an insect, so to speak, living like one, even though I had a place to stay, but the shame and the guilt and all that I felt when I was getting high, I just couldn’t face my people, my mom, my sisters and them. So I stayed on the streets,” said Hodges.

Hodges made the decision to get clean and did so in a treatment program in Louisville located away from his places of temptation. Hodges then found a 10-week culinary program created by both the Salvation Army and Louisville Chef Timothy Tucker.

“The goal of the culinary program; it’s more so about the life-essential skills that it takes to get back in society and succeed right now,” said Tucker.

Over five years, Tucker graduated nearly 100 people from the program before he moved on. He is in the process of creating a similar program elsewhere in the city. Tucker says the program is about more than teaching kitchen skills.

“Have you ever asked yourself what’s the difference between someone who’s homeless and someone who’s not? A lot of times the difference is family or support. So the culinary program provided that kind of family,” said Tucker.

After going through Tucker’s program, Hodges won a scholarship Sullivan University decided to award to one of the program’s outstanding students. Hodges has about six months left in Sullivan’s 18-month program. His skills are becoming more refined.

“It’s easy to want to take shortcuts, so you got to have that discipline and pride in what you do to not take shortcuts. Sometimes you got to go ahead and walk the whole path to get where you’re going if you want it to taste right. Like chicken broth – chicken stock – I love to make my own stock because I can tweak it exactly how I want instead of buying it out of a can. Or getting some bullion and soaking it in some warm water,” said Hodges.

Chef Sam Mudd is one of his instructors.

“From the very first quarter, his class started at seven. I’d see him here at six in the morning. I know from talking to him he had to catch a bus at five o’clock in the morning,” said Mudd.

The Louisville treatment program Hodges went through, called Interlink Counseling, is funded by federal and state dollars. Research from the University of Kentucky shows that for every $1 the state spends on substance-abuse prevention, $4 is saved in crime and incarceration costs. Here’s what Hodges tells other addicts trying to get clean.

It’s like you’re in a ball and the longer you get high, the smaller that ball gets. But you haven’t gotten smaller. It’s like you’re getting crushed. But there’s this tiny little hole at the bottom of that ball, and all you gotta do is put your finger in there and eventually get your had out of there, and reach out and get some help, and that ball will bust,” said Hodges.

Lately, Hodges has had some health challenges, including an episode of congestive heart failure. But he still goes to school and works a second job. Someday he wants to open a restaurant called Mary Ann’s named after his late mother.

“Food can really make you feel good if you put the right combinations together and you want that person to feel full and feel satisfied and feel good like wow, I ate lunch and I feel great!”