They may seem like the unlikeliest of chefs — ex-convicts and former drug users, people with empty pockets and no home addresses ...

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They may seem like the unlikeliest of chefs — ex-convicts and former drug users, people with empty pockets and no home addresses — cracking lobster tails and searing salmon in the back kitchen of a former downtown hotel.

Looking just as out of place have been the instructors barking orders at them over the years — an A-list that includes venerable chef Tom Douglas, along with chefs from such establishments as Canlis, Rover’s, The Herbfarm, Flying Fish and Earth & Ocean.

Yet from this partnership careers have been born:

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One former homeless man now works at Dahlia Lounge making Douglas’ signature Triple Coconut Cream Pie. A recovering drug addict is an apprentice chef at Salty’s in West Seattle, studying under corporate executive chef Dan Thiessen. Other once-homeless people have gone on to cook for Etta’s Seafood at Pike Place Market and P.F. Chang’s in Seattle.

Mihalski prepares the test dish for a recent “Guest Chef” night. Reservations for the dinners often fill up months in advance.

Quietly, in the past five years, a nonprofit training program called FareStart has become a key player in Seattle’s social-service scene, training homeless people in food-service jobs with the help of visiting chefs who would be the envy of any culinary school.

Next year, the program will move from leased space at the Josephinum, a low-income apartment complex on Second Avenue, to the former Jersey’s Sports Bar on the corner of Westlake and Seventh avenues. FareStart bought the property last summer for $4 million, a purchase made possible by a capital campaign that has raised $6 million of an $8 million goal.

Much of the rest of the money will be used to build a 6,000-square-foot kitchen and catering area, three large classrooms, storage and office space, and a large dining area. There, FareStart plans to double its kitchen capacity and train up to 500 homeless people annually — twice the current number.

“They are actually moving people out of homelessness,” said Vince Matulionis, an expert on homelessness for the United Way of King County. “That is part of the reason why they are so successful and can attract guest chefs.”

Since 1992, FareStart has placed about 80 percent of its 1,500 graduates in food-service jobs — from grocery delis and cafes to catering services and restaurants in Washington and other states, administrators said.

Four years ago, Nathan Tresch, 32, of SeaTac, was shooting up amphetamines and living in shelters. Now he’s an apprentice chef at Salty’s.


Jacob Ulii prepares sticky buns at Dahlia Lounge, where he makes pastries for four of chef Tom Douglas’ restaurants. Ulii, a former prisoner, got a new start through the FareStart program.

Five years ago, Jacob Ulii, 40, of Preston, was in prison for violating a restraining order. Now he’s based at Dahlia Lounge, making pastries for four of Douglas’ restaurants.

David Cochran, part-owner and executive chef of P.F. Chang’s in Seattle, has hired five prep and line cooks from Fare-

Start. He likes the program, he said, because students “have to prove that they want that second chance by completing the intensive training.”

Born on Capitol Hill

The program began in 1987 in the kitchen of a church on Capitol Hill, where it fed a small number of homeless people.

But founder David Lee wanted to teach marketable skills to the homeless, and by 1992, FareStart’s new mission was established: to be a place for the down-on-their-luck to reinvent themselves.

Then, as now, the program’s ranks came from homeless shelters, drug-rehab centers and, in some cases, prison. FareStart doesn’t take violent offenders or people with chronic mental illnesses, and alcoholics and drug addicts must first complete a rehabilitation program.

Each 16-week course has 45 to 55 students who are found beds at local shelters, given clothes and required to follow strict hygiene codes. Classes include stress management along with lessons on sautéing and braising.

Guest chef Philip Mihalski gives instructions to FareStart trainees. In addition to the fancy “Guest Chef” dinners, the trainees make 2,500 meals daily for various shelters, programs and cafes.

Under the supervision of a full-time culinary staff, students make 2,500 meals daily for shelters and local Head Start programs, for FareStart’s cafes in Rainier Valley and at the downtown Central Library, and for a catering service and restaurant at the training site.

Those food services generate 40 percent of the program’s $3 million annual operating budget; the rest comes from donations and grants, according to the group’s financial report.

“Guest Chef” is its showcase. Every Thursday, a top chef teaches students how to make elaborate, three-course meals that are served to the public that evening at the Josephinum for $19.95 per person. Reservations often fill up months in advance.

Under the chef’s supervision, students prepare, cook and plate such gourmet dishes as Tequila Marinated Lobster and melon salad, Pan Seared Alaskan Halibut with Yakima Asparagus, and Roasted Spring Onions and Vanilla Brown Butter.

With the support of such luminaries as Douglas of the Dahlia Lounge, FareStart has the cachet to recruit other top cooks to volunteer, FareStart spokesman David Carleton said.

“Guest Chef” night is also where careers are made.

A changed life

Tresch, the former amphetamine user, caught the attention of Salty’s corporate executive chef Thiessen in the FareStart kitchen last year.

“When he said, ‘Who wants to work with me?’ I raised my hand and said, ‘Me, here,’ ” said Tresch, a 2004 graduate of FareStart.

“Nathan had what it takes to make it in this business: patience, a hard-work ethic, fundamental skills” and an ability to do numerous tasks at once, Thiessen said.

Tresch just completed the first year of a three-year apprenticeship and wants to be a chef or own a restaurant, his days of sleeping in shelters and shooting up amphetamines a distant memory, he said.

He started using drugs because he got “bored with life and his job” as a computer programmer, he said, often getting so high at night that he’d be late for work, or not make it in at all. Eventually, his boss fired him, his wife left him and his landlord evicted him.

In 2002 he was charged with possessing drugs; the charge was dropped after he completed a rehabilitation program. He discovered FareStart and realized that his future was in front of a sauté station, not a computer.

About 40 percent — or 1,000 — of the program’s students have washed out. Some quit. Some have drug relapses and are kicked out until they complete treatment again. Some return to the streets.

Others are a work in progress.

Ulii, 40, spent two years in prison for contacting his wife in violation of a restraining order. After his release from the Monroe Corrections Center five years ago, he lived on the streets of Seattle until a shelter referred him to FareStart.

He enrolled, then dropped out. But realizing he had no chance of a good life on the streets, he returned, graduating with honors in 2000. He later got hired as a pastry cook at Dahlia Lounge.

But last summer, he got angry with his ex-wife and withdrew money from her checking account. He was charged with third-degree theft in District Court in Skagit County. The case is still pending, though he has apologized to his wife, Dove Ronai, who said she believes he is a changed man — someone who may not be perfect but is slowly progressing.

“He has done a fantastic job at work,” said Ronai, who has custody of their two teenage children. “I am proud of him, and it gives his kids something to be proud of, too.”

Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or

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