Richard Creamer says he was living high, a real estate and entertainment lawyer with "six or seven" houses and a few nice cars, when he began a high-grade cannabis-growing operation at a North Philadelphia warehouse in 2009.
"It came across my plate in a way that was like, 'This makes really, really crazy economic sense to me at this moment in my life,' and I didn't hold it to a great deal more scrutiny," said Creamer, 44. "It didn't take me very long to wish that I had."
In July 2009, federal authorities raided Creamer's operation, which produced about 20 pounds of marijuana a month, and busted Creamer and his pot-growing partner.
Creamer was convicted of conspiracy to manufacture marijuana and, in 2011, was sentenced to five years at the minimum-security camp at the Federal Correctional Institution at Fort Dix, N.J.
He surrendered his law license, his lavish lifestyle, and his freedom, and left behind his fiancée and their two young children.
"For me being an attorney making X amount of dollars, all these things become a part of your identity, for better or for worse, and they're stripped away from you when you do a jail sentence," he said.
Fortunately for Creamer, an innovative program helped him move back into society with confidence and a marketable skill.
Creamer participated in the Philabundance Community Kitchen (PCK) while still an inmate at Fort Dix, and it earned him a job as a pastry chef at the award-winning restaurant Zahav in Society Hill.
In the fall of 2014, Philabundance, the massive hunger-relief organization, joined with the Federal Bureau of Prisons and Connection Training Services to bring inmates into PCK, a free but intensive 14-week program that imparts culinary-arts and life skills to low-income adults. Philabundance has run the program from the kitchen of a North Philadelphia women's shelter since 2000.
"We use rescued food as a training tool to give people the opportunity to gain sustainable skills, while at the same time producing food that people in need can use," said PCK director Candace Matthews-Bass. "This training program is definitely part of our 'ending hunger forever' initiative, and it has an opportunity to make a huge impact on a variety of different scales."
Nineteen inmates are among the 750 graduates of the program who have gone on to work at restaurants including Pod, the Union League, and Crow & the Pitcher, according to PCK staff. The Bureau of Prisons has been approached about using the model elsewhere, including grocery stores and auto body shops.
"Imagine if you could start to process a plan to help an inmate stabilize themselves while they're still incarcerated?" Matthews-Bass said. "It sets them up so as soon as they're out, they can transition into stability so much sooner and reduce recidivism."
Candace Johnson, an associate warden who worked on the Bureau side to form the partnership, said it's "absolutely been a success." She said 91 percent of inmates who have participated got a job after release.
"Employment has always been a barrier for individuals who have a criminal record," she said. "Helping us to reduce recidivism, addressing transition and employment barriers while learning valuable life skills [are] all the major ingredients for a true recipe for success."
"I hadn't thought about where I wanted to be when I got out before, but then the program came out and there was something that clicked," he said. "The restaurant industry is extremely forgiving, and I was coming out a felon."
Life skills taught here
PCK classes are seven hours a day, five days a week, for 14 weeks. Included are culinary instruction, classroom lessons, employment assistance, internships and - perhaps the most important component - life skills.
Some students - in and out of prison - who attend PCK have not learned the skills needed to push past obstacles and emergencies, Matthews-Bass said.
"In order to get to where you're trying to go, which is sometimes a place you've never even gotten to, or nobody you know has ever gotten to, you're going to have to think and do things differently than you ever have," she said.
Chef Hugo Campos, PCK's culinary instructor, said teaching the students to be punctual, humble, respectful, and team players is a major component of the program.
"The industry is unfair and inconsistent, so learn how to cope," he said. "I know, coming from minority low-income housing . . . it's easy for us to fall into the stigma of, 'Well, the system sucks. It's working against us.'
"This is a great opportunity to prove that, yeah, the system isn't always great, but we can still be successful, we can still make a life for ourselves."
But the program isn't easy as pie. Every class has some dropouts, and Creamer said a lot of homework was required.
"It's not just about learning the rote skills," he said. "There's a whole personality component that requires you to understand your position . . . in the community."
Half the food used in the PCK kitchen comes from donations to Philabundance. The other half is bought with money PCK makes from supplying meals to area shelters.
For a final test, a PCK class transforms a women's shelter dining room into a fine-dining restaurant where they serve a three-course meal to local chefs and area employers.
"You look at our students, they come from different walks of life, they have different stories," Campos said. "But at the end of the day, they all work hard to play their part in a bigger meal."
Following his footsteps
On a recent Thursday afternoon, Creamer revisited PCK and spent time talking with three Bureau students in the class, distinguishable from their peers by their green pants.
Creamer asked one of them what he was doing at PCK.
"I'm following in your footsteps!" the tall, young man shouted.
The inmate, a polite 28-year-old serving 37 months for money laundering, declined to give his name. He said Creamer had inspired him to go into PCK and gave him hope for his own future.
"This will give me a stepping stone into the field," the inmate said. "It's not easy to get a job, especially with a felony, so this will help."
Creamer said he was happy to see the man, whom he'd met in prison.
"That's the point of me taking everything as seriously as I did, because there's guys like him behind me that need this program," he said. "He's warm and he's got a kind personality and he messed up, but he's righting his wrong and he wants to get back out and be with his family. This gives him that shot."
Creamer, who started at Zahav in April 2015 and worked his way up to head pastry chef by that July, left the restaurant in December to go into real estate consulting and to work on getting his law license back, which he is eligible to do as of June 1.
This time, Creamer said, he would like to practice criminal law.
"In a number of ways, I'm uniquely qualified," he said.