Whisk: The Eatery Where Ex-Offenders Are Starting Over

At Boston’s Whisk, chef Jeremy Kean is helping ex-offenders—like him—learn the business of running a restaurant.

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Whisk, chef Jeremy Kean's restaurant in Boston

WHISK

At Whisk, a great bistro in Boston’s North End, chef Jeremy Kean is helping ex-offenders get their lives back on track through a re-entry program that offers both food and food for the soul.

I paid my first visit to Whisk after it was recommended to me by The Roots editor-in-chief, Henry Louis Gates Jr., who accidentally ventured into the restaurant one night and came away energized and inspired.

The meal was one of the best I’ve had, and the story behind Whisk is as compelling as the food served.

After a scrape with the law on a drug charge several years ago, Kean found himself residing in New Jersey’s Mercer County Correction Center—the only white inmate locked up in a gang unit.

Searching for employment as a condition of his probation, he began working for Boston restaurateur Barbara Lynch and found his passion in cooking. His apprenticeship included no formal training, a circumstance that’s made the affable Kean open to innovation.

Cooking saved Kean, becoming a way not only to make a living but also to touch people’s lives. And after leaving his jail cell in Trenton, N.J., Kean wouldn’t forget the inmates he befriended. He joined forces with Haley House, a nonprofit that helps the jobless and homeless employ ex-offenders.

His most promising protégé is Emmanuel “Big Bop” Taylor. Taylor has been working for Kean for 15 months, after doing a little over two years at Boston’s South Bay correctional facility on a gun charge. Curious about what he described as the “protocols” of running a restaurant kitchen, Big Bop developed an instant bond with Kean, and the two have forged an unlikely friendship. A bighearted father of four, Taylor is in the process of turning his life around. The transformation hasn’t always been easy and remains incomplete.

“I know what it’s like to be in the struggle,” observed Taylor. “But now that’s all changed. I feel like God has angels mentoring me.”

Both Kean’s and Taylor’s stories form a small part of the sprawling odyssey of mass incarceration in America, a narrative that’s entered the mainstream consciousness through works like Michelle Alexander’s 2010 best-seller, The New Jim Crow.

African Americans currently account for 1 million of the country’s 2.3 million total incarcerated population, and one in three black males can expect to spend time in prison during their lifetimes in America. But the mind-numbing statistics tell only a partial story.