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Kaylen Simpson: Chef With a Cause

Kaylen is a native Houstonian and Executive Chef for A 2nd Cup, a Heights-based coffee shop whose mission is to raise awareness of human trafficking. Her passion for the culinary industry is equalled only by her passion for this cause.

 

By Sara G. Stephens

 

HFM: Tell us a little about your family life.

KS: I am a single, Native Houstonian. I am the youngest of four children and the only girl! I have no pets. I live with 2 roommates in Timbergrove.

 

HFM: When did you know you wanted to be a chef? How did you go about pursuing this career?

KS: I knew I wanted to be a chef when I saw the character Sookie from “Gilmore Girls” on TV. I remember very vividly seeing what she did, pointing at the TV, and saying, “That’s what I want to do!” My mom says that I’ve always wanted to experiment in the kitchen with her as a child, but I became bee-line focused on it as I looked into and applied to high schools. I was told about a high school that had a culinary program (Westside High School), and after touring the school I fell in love and knew it was the place for me.

I participated in the program for the three years it was available to me and was involved in everything I could be–competitions, leadership, catering events, etc. I also applied for and was accepted into both the Culinary Institute of America (Hyde Park, New York) and Johnson and Whales (Providence, Rhode Island), but after much frustration, I couldn’t go because of how much it cost.

 

HFM: So, what did you do?

KS: After high school, I got a job at Tiny’s No. 5 in the pastry department and worked there for a year before deciding to go to a Biblical discipleship training internship in Hot Springs, Arkansas. I attended that for 9 months and right after graduating took a job as the elementary director at a church in Sugar Land. After that, I took a position as Elementary Director at another church in the Heights, which was only part time. This led me to looking for another part-time job.

 

HFM: And this led to your becoming executive chef at A 2nd Cup. How did this happen?

KS: It happened that A 2nd Cup was in the process of building and hiring. So I messaged Erica [Raggett, founder] and asked her to let me know when they were doing interviews. Fast forward, I got the job and have been here ever since. I have since quit the job at the church to pursue my education once again, as well as continue to work for A 2nd Cup.

 

HFM: Were you drawn to the human trafficking cause or to the culinary work?

KS: I would have to say that it was both the cause and the work that drew me. I definitely was desperate to get my hands back into food. Being away from food for so long made me desperately miss it! I would often create elaborate meals for myself in the dorm I was living in in Arkansas, and my peers would be amazed and confused as they ate their ramen and PBJs.

But I also grew to dislike aspects of the food service industry as I worked at Tiny’s, and I knew that if I were to get back into it in a professional capacity that I wanted to be able to shape the atmosphere I was working in. Being hired as one of the managers certainly gave me that opportunity as I got to treat my employees the way I wanted to be treated.

I don’t in any way want to accuse Tiny’s of being a terrible work environment. What I’m really trying to communicate is that the industry as a whole is hyper competitive, which drives people to not be as compassionate, as they are trying to get ahead themselves. This just isn’t something I thrive in. I wanted, and really still want, to see the industry come to a place where we can build each other up as creative individuals who each have something to bring to the table.

Also, I love people. I have a real heart for building up and being a part of a community that rallies behind each other and around justice. I saw the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of something that had the absolute potential to be amazing and life changing, and I knew that I could be of use to the cause. I love that one of Erica’s passions is to equip, empower, and inspire people to use the skills that they already have and the jobs that they already participate in to advocate for victims of injustice. I don’t think that concept gets tossed around enough. I think we all need a reminder that who we are and what we do absolutely can change the world.

 

HFM: A 2nd Cup is building out a program to train trafficking survivors in the foodservice industry.

KS: Yes, our goal is to have our first cohort of interns in March of 2018.

 

HFM: Why is this industry well suited for these victims?

KS: For many reasons: Food will never go away, because everyone has to eat; the restaurant/hospitality industry continues to grow and increase, especially in Houston; the diversity of our city is one of the reasons why human trafficking can hide so easily, but it also creates the gorgeous potential for food to be stretched beyond where it is now; and restaurants and hotels alike have been a part of facilitating human trafficking.

I am not claiming that all or even a majority of restaurants/hotels use forced or undocumented labor, but it is happening. It’s easy to hide someone in the back of a kitchen, bar, or hotel, especially as it hustles and bustles constantly–out of sight out of mind. There is also often a very high turnover rate, which means that it’s easy to keep people from noticing trends. The competitive nature of a restaurant industry also brings about a deep need to stay competitively priced, so there’s not always a ton of room for staff to be paid a great salary, and sadly, sometimes they’re not paid at all.

Another very common avenue for human trafficking are cantinas where women disguised as “servers” offer their bodies instead of what’s “on the menu.”

 

HFM: So when the program does roll out, it’s purpose will be to train human trafficking survivors for careers in the foodservice industry?

KS: Even if our interns do not end up pursuing a life long career in the foodservice industry, I believe that the skills that the kitchen offers are invaluable: time management, nutrition, multi-tasking, high pressure situations, courtesy/customer service, and cooking/baking in general.

 

HFM: How does the program work?

KS: The program will be divided into three main sections: remediation/stabilization; coffee/culinary/food service specific skills; and an externship, all building up to interns’ final project, which is a gala that will let them utilize skills they have learned throughout their year.

 

HFM: Are there opportunities for Houston families to volunteer at A 2nd Cup?

KS: Absolutely! We are a fully functioning business/kitchen/coffee shop, so we do have to follow lots of legal procedures, but we really do our best to involve our community. We have weekly front-of-house volunteer positions available where you will help our baristas greet customers, take their orders, maintain our shop, and learn our drinks! At every major event we hold, we ask for volunteers for various positions from set-up/clean- up to registration. All of these things can be discussed with our volunteer coordinator at volunteer@a2ndcup.com.

 

HFM: How has awareness of human trafficking impacted you as an individual?

KS:The awareness has changed many things about my life. Being constantly aware of injustice has removed my complacency for it when I see it–really in all avenues of injustice. It also has heightened my compassion for people and their stories. A lot of people will never know a victim of human trafficking personally, but it wouldn’t be uncommon to cross paths at some point in time.

 

HFM: What thoughts regarding human trafficking are top of mind for you this month, as we celebrate “the land of the free?”

KS: As I dive into fleshing out this program, and as I have more conversations with people, I realize that there is a huge misconception about human trafficking. People believe that it’s just sex trafficking and that it’s all foreign women. I think that not knowing the whole story is not only detrimental, but also greatly diminishes the life experiences of those you don’t acknowledge. The truth is that there are more forced labor victims than there are sex exploitation victims.

 

HFM: Do you see yourself working for this cause indefinitely, or would you pursue another culinary opportunity if it presented itself?

KS: I see myself working for A 2nd Cup until I can launch my own program–probably several years down the line. My personal passion is food justice. I would love to go into low-income neighborhoods and build programs off of urban gardens. Like I said before, I love people, and I want to be able to provide for the hungry and use food to impact a community.

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