The hidden treasure behind the posh at Merge’s A10

By Homa Bash
Medill News Serice

Casell Lewis winds his way around the newly opened restaurant effortlessly, running up and down stairs from the prep area to the kitchen countless times each shift.

“Your glutes will thank me,” said Chef John Vermiglio, laughing as he dashes by. Every inch of the kitchen is buzzing as the restaurant readies for the dinner rush they’ve come to expect after being in business for just two weeks.

Born and raised in Chicago’s crime-riddled Auburn Gresham neighborhood, 19-year-old Lewis has a new job, a steady paycheck and big plans for the future.

He’s also fresh out of jail.

“I was told not to call it a mistake,” Lewis said. “It was a bad decision that was made and a decision that affected me in a big way. But at the same time, after I was released, I knew I had to stay focused so I can get my life back on track where I was.”

And with that, Lewis is making a fresh start.

Thanks to skills he said he learned through the expanding Urban Farming Initiative program at the Cook County Jail, he now banks up to 45 hours a week as a food preparation assistant at Hyde Park’s latest fine dining establishment, A10.

A10 is owned and operated by Chef Matthias Merges, whose involvement with the jail’s garden program stretches back to its inception and his time at the famed Charlie Trotter restaurant in Lincoln Park.

“We felt there was a lot of great energy that was happening there and we definitely wanted to be involved with the community,” Merges explained.

Merges’s trio of restaurants Yusho, Billy Sunday and A10 make up the largest purchasers of produce from the jail farm.

“We’re citizens of the city,” Merges said. “We have a responsibility not just to come in with our small businesses and make money, but to be involved with the community.”

And he doesn’t stop there. Merges has no qualms about hiring former inmates and said he’s never had a negative experience with the eight to 10 he has employed at various locations over the years.

“We give people a chance,” he said. “I just think everybody needs a chance to make it right and to move forward.”

Lewis’ moment to move forward almost seems like a stroke of fate.

On a warm summer day, the chef who runs the kitchen at A10, Vermiglio, was at the jail’s garden looking to buy a bulk of Roma tomatoes, the inmates’ newest crop. The farm’s deputy director, Kerry Wright, who knew Lewis would be released soon, introduced the two and the groundwork toward gainful employment was laid.

“All it took was one interview and they wanted Casell when he got out,” Wright said proudly.

The 20-year-old garden program has graduated thousands of inmates, and Wright includes Lewis as one of its success stories.

“For being so young, he has such a strong work ethic,” Wright said. “Casell was our go-to guy. Anything we needed done, we knew we could ask him and he would lead the inmates, which was really special to see.”

Lewis, convicted on a charge of residential burglary on a family member following a fight with an aunt, spent February to October behind bars. Although he was a first-time offender, the charge wasn’t one eligible for probation under Illinois law.

Before he veered off track, Lewis was on a straight path. The teenager held various odd jobs growing up, from construction work to a local carwash to After School Matters.

Thinking back to his stint in jail, Lewis said, is painful.

“I was in there with a lot of young guys, a lot of African American males,” he said. “They act like they didn’t have anything to live for, just caught up in the lifestyle.”

And that, Lewis said, forced him to spend a lot of time by himself, alone in his cell, until the urban gardening program drew him out. A correctional officer asked Lewis if he wanted to dig in — and at first, Lewis said, it was simply a way to get outside and do something.

He also thought back to his childhood and memories of growing up watching his grandmother tend to her own small garden.

“I’ve never been a lazy guy. I’ve always believed in hard work,” Lewis said. But, he added, until he was out in the jail’s farm, he hadn’t been given the chance to combine his work ethic with something truly productive — and watch it grow.

As his time on the farm ramped up and his time in jail wound down, Lewis began thinking about his fast-approaching release date and re-entry into society.

“It’s hard,” Lewis said. “They put you on probation and throw you back into the world like you’re supposed to stand on both feet that same day. It’s crazy.”

Fast forward a couple weeks after his Oct. 1 release to this elegant chic restaurant on the corner of 53rd Street and Harper Avenue in Hyde Park and it’s clear Lewis is standing on his own.

Gone is the standard-issue jail jumpsuit. In its place, a black button-down and freshly pressed slacks.

Working side-by-side with seasoned chefs, Lewis helps with every aspect of food prep, from chopping and dicing to measuring ingredients. A shy smile is always on his face as he explains to Wright what Panko bread crumbs are used for and just how expensive – and stinky – fancy cheeses can be.

“It’s a lot of new things I’m learning about, a lot of new foods I’m learning about. I had never been interested in cooking,” he said. “But I’m becoming interested in it.”