Hodges, in the back row and second from the left, was a student in 2009.
Jackson Hodges, in the second row and second from the left, was a student in 2009.

About a decade ago, Jackson Hodges hit rock bottom. Thirty-eight years old and addicted to cocaine, Hodges had cut himself off from friends and family and become unemployable. In desperation, he reached out for help, entered treatment and got clean.

Wanting to work, he tapped his neglected love of cooking and entered the Salvation Army Culinary Training Program, a 10-week free class offered by the charity. Hodges not only mastered the class, he found work, which eventually led him right back to the Salvation Army as its culinary instructor.

“I know, it’s kind of crazy, right?” said Hodges. He later received a full scholarship to Sullivan University’s culinary school, where he earned an associate’s degree. Now 49, he’s teaching others the joys of cooking and steering them toward professional kitchens where they can earn an income and establish new lives. “Cooking is good work, and a lot of people come here after realizing they’d always liked cooking.”

Much of the success enjoyed by the program’s graduates comes from employment under local chefs. Hodges said restaurant employees are particularly empathetic toward the downtrodden trying to work in recovery and re-establish their lives.

“Unfortunately, the restaurant industry has a lot of this going on, things like drugs and alcohol, so (chefs) know people are struggling,” he said. “They always want to help.”

One way they help is by volunteering to cook at the annual Chefs for Hope dinner, held this year on Saturday, Feb. 28, at 6:30 p.m. at Big Spring Country Club (5901 Dutchmans Lane).

The current crop of the Salvation Army’s culinary program’s students will assist five restaurant chefs in preparing and serving the six-course, prix fixe meal: Geoffrey Heyde (Village Anchor Pub & Roost), Oscar Maldonado (Wiltshire on Market), Anoosh Shariat (Anoosh Bistro), Daniel Stage (Louisville Country Club) and Dean Corbett (Equus, Jack’s Lounge, Corbett’s).

Cost for the event is $125 per person (tax deductible since it’s a charitable event), and reservations, which tend to disappear quickly, can be made by calling 931-5420. (The final menu hasn’t been released.)

Hodges said he loves watching students interact with established chefs, people they hold in high esteem.

“It gives them the chance to hobnob with the great chefs in the city, and it lets them see they’re not Gordon Ramsay,” Hodges said. “They get to see that most chefs are down to earth, not crazy like him. … But I do tell them that occasionally you’ll get a chef who can be like him if you don’t do what you’re supposed to do.”

Hodges receiving his diploma at Sullivan University. To his left is chancellor A.R. Sullivan, and to his right are chef David Dodd and chef Sam Mudd.
Hodges receiving his diploma at Sullivan University. To his left is chancellor A.R. Sullivan, and to his right are chef David Dodd and chef Sam Mudd.

In addition to building public awareness for the culinary program, Hodges said the dinner inspires students by giving them something to aim for once their 10-week session is completed.

“The whole thing helps them be more confident and gives them something to think about doing beyond being a dishwasher,” he said. “They can think, ‘I can aim for sous chef one day.’”

Heyde, who has cooked at the dinner in the past, said it’s obvious to him and his peers that the event is more than a fundraiser.

“We know we’re fortunate to be successful in the industry right now, and we know we’re showing them there’s an opportunity out there if they put their minds to it,” said Heyde, Village Anchor’s executive chef. “All the chefs involved are people who want to spread our passion for cooking to somebody else and give them some hope.”

Like Hodges, Heyde acknowledged that restaurant industry work can be a blessing and a curse for people recovering from substance abuse. But while he said exposure to those temptations is often higher in restaurants, most in the business find opportunities to resist them and become successful.

“Working in this business is a way to get out of it or get wrapped up into it — but that happens everywhere, I think,” he said. “I definitely want to see a higher success rate of people like those we’re helping that night, and I think it can happen if people can find their passion for cooking. We’re there to show them they can do that.”

Can’t make the dinner but would like to donate to the program? Visit this Facebook page to find more information. Hodges said the program always needs funding to purchase cooking equipment, uniforms for students, and teaching materials.

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Steve Coomes
Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned award-winning food, spirits and travel writer. In his 24-year career, he has edited and written for multiple national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. He is a feature writer for Louisville magazine, Edible Louisville & The Bluegrass and Food & Dining Magazine. The author of two books, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and the "Home Distiller's Guide to Spirits," he also serves as a ghostwriter for multiple clients.