The trip between Brooklyn and Philadelphia, some 100 miles by bus, car, or train, can be hard on commuters, but Kurt Evans is bouncy, his enthusiastic Philly lilt on display as he talks about his “life work:” cooking to bring awareness to mass incarceration. Evans is the chef behind the successful End Mass Incarceration dinner series in Philadelphia, a multi-course meal where families impacted by mass incarceration, law makers, law enforcement officials, and curious diners have conversations about prison reform over his seasonal dishes.
"The EMI dinners came about as a way to bring awareness to mass incarceration because people didn't know it was an issue and didn't know race was a factor,” says Evans.
This month, he will become the new culinary director of Drive Change, an organization started in 2013 in New York City, offering eight-month culinary arts fellowships to formerly incarcerated youth via pop-up lunches in Brooklyn and a roaming food truck. He recently spent the day with his new team members at Drive Change, where he discussed how his grandmother’s intuitive, loving approach to cooking helped shape techniques he would later use in professional kitchens. Evans remembers watching her make fried chicken; she began by adding sage, thyme, and rosemary to the fryer oil as it heated, the herbs’ flavors leaching into the oil, which would be imparted to the chicken as it fried. Today he uses those same herbs, but in a different way. “The herbs would burn in the oil, so I add them to the marinade,” he says.
Learning from and underscoring the brilliance of cooks like his grandmother inspires him when creating menus for his EMI dinners. Evans has hosted over 25 dinners, featuring dishes like piri piri prawns and roasted cauliflower and fonio salad, alongside a "chi chi," or a "correctional cake,” a microwaved cake made from commissary ingredients like M&M’s, Oreo cream filling, and mayonnaise, which acts a binder. Evans hopes to show diners the creative depth and ingenuity of incarcerated people, through the lens of cooking. The intent is not to objectify, but rather to illustrate the nuanced reality of the prison experience. “These people are really passionate and resilient," he says.
Evans had worked as an executive chef at a restaurant in Philadelphia for about a year when Drive Change began looking for a new culinary director. Friends sent him the job description and encouraged him to apply. “I got a lot of emails about it,” he remembers. It was perfect timing. He knew he wanted to dedicate more of his time and energy to raising awareness about mass incarceration. "I felt like I was at a fork in the road between having a career and having a passion and purpose,” he says. “EMI started as a side project, but now it's at the front.”
With Drive Change, Evans wants to pass along the skills he’s learned in kitchens to fellows in the hopes that they join the hospitality and restaurant world.
“Chef Kurt brings a wealth of experience in hospitality [and] has faced challenges in the industry," says James Stark, fellowship director for Drive Change. Stark's job is to help build experiences for participants that will prepare them to enter the industry. “He’s managed to work and make a name for himself in an oppressive industry.”
Jordyn Lexton, founder and CEO of Drive Change, says the fellows’ development is about more than just having a job. "70% of young adults who have been arrested are going to be re-arrested, and 80% of those people will be unemployed at the time of their re-arrest,” Lexton says. “Work is not just about dollars in your pocket; it's about sense of self and the feeling of community in a workplace." Culinary arts fellowships allow them to explore their talents in a different way, Lexton continues. “Drive Change creates workplace environments where formerly incarcerated youth can tap into their genius and thrive. The word 'thrive' is really key.”
Since Evans has stepped into the role, he and Drive Change have been planning social justice food events for the fall and winter season, and they’ve hosted three pop-up dinners in New York City cooked by Evans and fellows, in addition to launching a food truck menu update featuring seasonal comfort food.
“I’m excited to work with young talented individuals leaving the system [and] reentering into society, by training them for bright futures in the hospitality industry,” Evans says. Food might just be the perfect way to both teach and help diners learn more about what he and Drive Change are all about.
"Everyone doesn't like wine or coffee, but everyone has to eat,” he says. “It's the perfect vehicle.”