At first glance, there’s nothing unusual about Natalie, a server at chef Marc Thuet‘s latest restaurant. With her funky haircut and efficient manner, she could be any server working in any trendy downtown restaurant — except that she’s a recovering addict who’s just served time for cocaine smuggling. In fact, as ex-cons, none of the staff at Conviction has the kind of resumÃ© that would win over most employers. But Thuet, the French-born, Toronto-based chef cÃ©lÃ¨bre, along with his wife and partner Biana Zorich, are giving these high-risk employees a chance.
Thuet, who has owned several critically acclaimed eateries and currently owns two retail bakeries, decided to open a restaurant staffed by ex-convicts and recovering addicts two years ago, when he was celebrating four years of his own sobriety. “I have a therapist, but my therapy is work,” he says. “I know how tough it can be to get back into society when someone doesn’t give you a second chance.”
To recruit staff, he got help from an unusual business partner: a television production company. Cineflix spent several months filming at the restaurant for a documentary series called Conviction Kitchen, which was scheduled to premiere in September on Citytv.
Most of the staff have never eaten in a fine-dining restaurant, never mind worked in one. Early reviews mentioned less than refined service, and, indeed, Thuet has had to terminate a handful of staff due to substance abuse or tardiness. Still, many have risen to the occasion. The unique concept has captured media attention from countless newspapers and magazines in Canada, as well as from ABC and Reuters, helping to fill tables.
“It’s been one of the greatest experiences in my life,” says Thuet. “They don’t all make it, but those who will are loyal and work so hard. I hope this helps people put themselves in an addict’s body and see that it’s worth giving them a chance.”