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Catering nonprofit puts homeless to work to get on their feet

Addie Broyles
abroyles@statesman.com

When Carmen Gutierrez was younger, before she had kids and long before she became homeless, she worked at a Dairy Queen on Ben White Boulevard.

The restaurant isn't there anymore, but Gutierrez is back in the food business, even though she still doesn't have an address to call home, which is something most employers, including fast-food restaurants, require employees to have.

Gutierrez is one of six homeless Austinites who are working for Full Plate, a catering service through the nonprofit Clean Slate that has provided food for six events in the past few months.

Clean Slate, which Deb and Bob Woods started in 2010 with a car wash program, gives homeless people the opportunity to work and earn a paycheck, but more importantly, the Woodses help them get the paperwork and identification needed to get jobs and housing.

Bob Woods had spent 30 years working in the probation system, so when he retired, he felt compelled by his faith to continue to work with people who needed his help to get their lives back in order.

"We would ask (homeless) people, 'What is it that you need?' and they would almost always say, 'We need to work,' " says Deb Woods.

But without a Social Security card, a driver's license or a residence to list on a job application, they couldn't be hired, even at a fast-food restaurant .

People without proper identification can always ask for money on the street corner, clean windshields at stoplights or do janitorial work for under-the-table money, but that doesn't help them find longterm work , Woods says.

The Clean Slate car wash program was going well, but when the Woodses met chef Paul Petruzzi, they decided to add a food-service component to the organization.

Petruzzi, who had worked for eight years with the Round Rock-based frozen food company Michael Angelo's before opening Fion Wine Pub and Bistro in 2008, sold the restaurant last year to become a restaurant consultant.

"I went from 110 (mph) to zero, and I missed it. I felt this sense of loss," he said. He started volunteering at a weekly breakfast that Mobile Loaves & Fishes, another local nonprofit that works with homeless people, hosts every Friday at an RV park in Southeast Austin, and before long, he and the Woodses were talking about ways they could use food service to empower people who are willing to work their way off the streets.

Last summer, they found six participants who went through a background check and an application and interview process.

Deb Woods says past criminal activity wouldn't disqualify them from participating, but they wanted the participants to go through the process that anyone else would go through when seeking employment.

Their first event was a 9/11 remembrance event for 600 people at Lake Hills Church on Bee Cave Road, where the staff of six served sliders, homemade hummus, cookies and grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches at an event big enough to challenge even the most experienced caterers.

How was the food? "There was nothing left," Gutierrez says, noting that an empty plate is a chef's greatest compliment. "It was so nerve-wracking," Gutierrez says. It had been a long time since she talked with so many strangers. "But then seeing all their smiles made it better."

Petruzzi teaches them the culinary skills he learned at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., back in the 1990s, but they also get lessons in life skills that they'll need to fit in at a workplace and once they get into their own housing.

They earn $10 an hour, but taxes come out of the paychecks they get every Friday. "We treat them just like we'd treat any other employees," Deb Woods says.

Bob Woods sometimes has to co-sign the checks when they cash them, and when tax time rolls around in April, they'll be filing their W-2s just like everybody else. (Another universal concern: "I just pray they don't have to pay any back," Deb Woods says.)

Chefs are compassionate people who often just get so busy running a business, they lose sight of why they started cooking in the first place, Petruzzi says. "I had found the nurturing part of cooking again," he says.

The hardest part was working so closely with his team and then having to drop them off downtown knowing that they didn't have a front door to walk through. "But, you know what? They have better attitudes than most people with roofs over their heads."

(Clean Slate and Mobile Loaves & Fishes, which assists Clean Slate with paperwork and resources, recently teamed up with Jack Gilmore of Jack Allen's Kitchen, another compassionate chef who hasn't forgotten how to nurture, for a fundraiser in November.)

Most of the menu ideas are Petruzzi's, but he says that each of the staff members has a dish or creative idea to contribute. Gutierrez's specialty is the pico de gallo, while her boyfriend, Joe De Leon, is usually in charge of the salsas. They work out of a rented commercial kitchen space, and instead of charging a flat rate for the events they cater, Petruzzi says that he can figure out a menu to serve that fits into almost any budget. "I'm a chef. I can make a little go a long way."

Gutierrez and De Leon are first in line for the housing component of Full Plate, which the Woodses hope will happen by March.

Gutierrez's five children, ages 5 to 16, live with her parents in South Austin, but Gutierrez is determined to use the skills she forgot she had to make a better life for them and others who want to get into the Full Plate program, which is at capacity for now. (There are still job openings in Clean Slate's car wash program.) "Once we get on our feet, we want to be able to pass it on and help others," Gutierrez says.

For the team that runs Full Plate, opportunities and ideas are coming faster than they can execute them. Deb Woods says they want to open a nonprofit restaurant and maybe even a food trailer, and eventually, they'd like to be able to publish a cookbook and send some of the workers to culinary school.

In coming months, Petruzzi wants to start a lunch delivery program, and the Woodses envision adding lunch delivery by bicycle as part of a healthy living initiative. Gutierrez is eager to start making tamales that they might sell next holiday season.

If you're interested in hiring Full Slate for a catering event or participating in the office lunch delivery program, contact Stephanie Asmus at stephanie@cleanslateaustin.org.

abroyles@statesman.com; 912-2504

Pico de Gallo

This recipe for pico de gallo from Full Plate worker Carmen Gutierrez doesn't have any fancy bells or whistles (and, unless you cut it in half, it will make a ton of salsa), but it's a dish she and her boss, Culinary Institute of America graduate Paul Petruzzi, are proud to serve.

1 bunch cilantro, finely chopped

8 jalapeños, finely chopped

4 onions, finely chopped

3-4 tomatoes, finely chopped

Juice of 1 lemon

Mix the ingredients by hand and serve with tortilla chips or on enchiladas or tacos.

— Carmen Gutierrez