At 16 years old, Titus Perkins had a criminal record and worked a 5 a.m. jockey shift in the kitchen at the Fair Grounds Race Course. He made a good impression and went on to work for Ralph Brennan as a dishwasher, making $4.50 an hour. Twenty-two years later, Perkins is the executive kitchen manager at Brennan's New Orleans, where he oversees operations while acting as a mentor and motivating entry-level staff and young applicants to the restaurant. On April 12, Perkins was awarded the National Restaurant Association's Faces of Diversity Award, which honors professionals who exemplify diversity, leadership and achievement. Perkins spoke with Gambit about the challenges he overcame.
: What are some of the biggest obstacles you've overcome?
Perkins: Just being myself, because I come from a different background. My grandmother was handicapped, and I was raised by her. I was a street person, doing things that a teenager wasn't supposed to be doing.
It was a transition — working — but somebody took a chance on me. When I first started ... I reminded myself so much of the people that we see coming in now. That's why I like to help them — because someone took a chance on me, with the way that I looked. When I first started, I had a mouth full of gold teeth; I had the bad attitude. The chef who is the corporate chef now (Haley Bittermann) took a chance on me; she took a chance on a knucklehead. She saw something in me that I couldn't even see in myself.
: What are the greatest challenges to young entry-level restaurant workers?
P: Everybody that's young and wants to work — they want to be rich overnight. They want to be millionaires overnight. You can't become a millionaire overnight. You have to work for it. I started out making $4.25 an hour and I'm way past that now, but that didn't happen overnight. That was hard work, putting in extra hours, not wanting to go home — showing the chef that I didn't want to go home. I can't say all young people, but some young people just don't have that drive. They just want to be rich overnight and that just doesn't happen. That's a fool's dream. You work one shift and you're rich? You have to put in the work, and you still might not be rich, but you can live a very comfortable life. I have two kids in college and I'm a single parent. It can be done.
There are a lot of people throughout the years who were coming in and didn't know how to fill out a job application, or didn't even know how to dress for a job. So I started a process of helping people that come in — showing them the proper way to fill out their application, show them the proper way to dress and the proper way to conduct themselves. Some people just don't know. Even if I don't hire them, they still leave with the knowledge of what to do better next time, at the next place.
: How can restaurants help bridge the achievement gap and help workers?
P: I don't know about a lot of other places, but for the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group, everybody that I hire, I tell (them) that being a dishwasher is the first step. All you have to do is put in the work. We have dishwashers that might work here for about six months, and if they're doing a good job, they get promoted to cook and then go from there. This is one company that pushes, really pushes for people that work inside the company. It's about a dream of not being stuck in the position that you're in. If you give people the opportunity to move, it stops turnover and it gives a people a better living wage in New Orleans. That, and the insight to take care of their family and their community. Maybe if other restaurants gave that insight to people who wanted to move up that would bring a different attitude.