Inside Track: Chef turns his focus to teaching life skills to local youths
Tommy Fitzgerald’s eyes were opened to the importance of community at a very young age.
The charred remains of Tommy Fitzgerald’s boyhood home have served as an unlikely spark for helping to steer teens’ lives in a constructive direction — and the reason he recently closed his downtown café.
Fitzgerald was 4 when his parents’ East Fulton Street home was engulfed in flames. Soon after that misfortune, his eyes were opened to the kindness of strangers, including the Roman Catholic sisters at the Dominican Center at Marywood where his family received temporary shelter that fall until his parents were able to purchase a home in Cascade Township in the spring.
“When our house burned down, I saw a whole community circle around my family to make sure we stayed together,” he said.
“I realized it was not just my parents who raised me, but my whole neighborhood had a stake in raising Tommy Fitzgerald.”
That experience is the chief reason Fitzgerald founded, in 2010, the high-octane, merrymaking fundraiser called Juice Ball, which always falls near his Jan. 8 birthday. Funds raised went toward purchasing juice boxes for local nonprofit Kids’ Food Basket, which provides sack suppers for thousands of kids in Grand Rapids and Muskegon.
Three years later, he launched the nonprofit Kitchen Sage, a culinary mentoring program that’s teaching young people about much more than cooking.
Fitzgerald is well aware that life is ephemeral. That’s why, after five years of operation, he decided to sell his Café Stella, housed on the main floor of the Riverview Center at 678 Front St. NW, to Rico’s Deli. He now devotes the majority of his time to Kitchen Sage and to overseeing the operation of the Tommy Fitzgerald Group, which today is solely a catering business.
Fitzgerald is filled with the notion of giving young people a hand up, but helping them discover their occupational muse is not his only goal. He believes adults with real-life know-how, such as himself, should come alongside teens to help open their lives to new possibilities. That includes holding them responsible for the decisions they make, a lesson he learned growing up.
“Our neighborhood held all us kids accountable,” he said. “They all had a stake in our development. If I broke a window with my baseball, I owned up to it and it was my responsibility to pay for that window.
“Nowadays, kids are consistently bombarded with what they cannot do because it might not be politically correct.”
Fitzgerald’s love and concern for kids is connected with a desire to marshal them toward a productive future. How he accomplishes this is based in part on tough love, courteousness, the school of hard knocks — and being a sort of stand-up comedian.
It’s for that reason Fitzgerald’s Juice Ball, held every January at the JW Marriott Grand Rapids, is always attached to a theme that stimulates plenty of grins.
In 2013, Juice Ball had a “Grand Slam” theme, with ballpark games and guests dressed in baseball attire. 2014’s Comic-Con Juice Ball saw its 1,200 or so guests don Star Wars, Superman and other superhero costumes. On Jan. 10, 2015, Fitzgerald is planning a boot scootin’, hat tippin', boot kickin' Juice Ball.
While Juice Ball initially benefited Kids’ Food Basket,in 2014, Fitzgerald shifted its sponsorship to fund his Kitchen Sage Foundation.
Kitchen Sage’s six-month after-school mentorship for teens is held inside the Basilica of Saint Adalbert’s kitchen. It includes internships and externships, such as learning to serve as a host, wait tables at a local eatery, or work with social media. Upon completion, the teens can earn a ServSafe Food Handler Certification and potentially a scholarship to Grand Rapids Community College’s culinary program or some other higher learning institute.
“We offer them resources to get them to the next point in their education or careers,” said Fitzgerald. “It could include GRCC but it’s not limited to GRCC. It could be anywhere they want to take their education or experiences. And it may not necessarily be money. It might be just be books or whatever. College takes on a lot of different needs.”
Kitchen Sage is a learn-to-pay program, meaning the students earn Michigan’s new minimum wage rate of $8.15 an hour to engender “a sense of accountability on a financial level.”
Accountability is a two-way street, Fitzgerald said.
“If they’re late or miss a day or lose a book, I charge them,” he said. “These kids are opportunists. They come from many demographics, but they want the opportunity to learn not only to cook but also to be a better person. I really hate it when people say ‘disadvantaged.’ They’re not disadvantaged. They’re seizing a legitimate opportunity for themselves.”
Fitzgerald recently linked arms with Steepletown Neighborhood Services, a consortium of three churches that offer a panoply of services on Grand Rapids west side — the Basilica of Saint Adalbert, which includes Steepletown Preschool, St. James and St. Mary’s.
Steepletown is a hand-in-glove fit for Kitchen Sage students, who are taught how to prepare nutritious meals for the preschoolers on a daily basis.
“I share my resources and Steepletown shares their resources, so we are truly working in unison and synergy on all sorts of levels,” said Fitzgerald. “The most powerful thing about Kitchen Sage is me — a hugely loud-mouthed, highly civic-minded chef. Many think of (my students) as failures; I think of them as successes. My assumption is they’re going to be successful.”
By his own admission, Fitzgerald is a mixture of traditional values and off-the-cuff, occasionally blue humor delivered with an impish grin. He is blunt and uncompromising when he explains his approach to the students.
“We’re paying someone to educate them in this curriculum. You’re going to pay attention and learn this stuff,” he said. “These kids are getting the ability to job shadow an ADD chef. I can create a common ground, but I don’t put on the kid gloves for them.”
Fitzgerald has no use for the word “entitlement.”
“The world owes us nothing,” he said. “We owe the world. We’re here to make the world better. All we’ve got is each other on this planet. We either are going to teach these kids to be part of the community and give them the tools to build on, or we’ll create more dependence.”
Fitzgerald said some people have asked him to consider running for political office. He does not say if he will or which office that would be, but he floats some ideas that could be fodder for an election campaign.
“If we can tax cigarettes because they cause cancer and we tax beer and other alcohol because it leads to health problems, why not tax foods that are nutritionally inept and use (the money) to help supplement the cost of health care?” said Fitzgerald.
“We’d live longer, healthier lives, prepare nutritious foods, and do all that without pointing fingers at each other.”
He is disgusted with politicians who want to spend millions on border patrols. Instead of forcing undocumented immigrants to live in fear of discovery, they could be part of a tax revenue stream, he said, which ultimately would engender a kinder opinion of people who are from other countries but share a commonality with U.S. citizens.
“We all are one race and should keep in mind that we are in this together,” said Fitzgerald. “So when we judge a person because of their cultural background, we should keep in mind: We are all part of the same race.”