This Chef Went From McDonald’s to Per Se—and Now Teaches Kids in Low-Income Neighborhoods

Through the Insurgo Project, chef Harold Villarosa is hoping to change how communities think about food.

Chef Harold Villarosa has taken his fine-dining skills and applied them to teaching youth.

The concept of food justice might still be a relatively new one in the culinary world. Most chefs focus on creating exceptional food for an elite few (critics, affluent patrons, other chefs), but fewer focus on providing quality food for those who really need it: low-income neighborhoods whose nourishment options are limited to bodegas and fast-food chains. Chef Harold Villarosa is hoping to change this status quo.

“Never forget where you came from; otherwise, you’ll become an asshole” is Villarosa’s life motto. For a chef who grew up in the South Bronx and might defy every culinary convention in the book, that means never forgetting the McDonald’s on 34th Street, where he held his first job in food, even as he climbed the culinary ladder to brush shoulders with Thomas Keller in the kitchen of his three-Michelin-starred Per Se. It means never forgetting the neighborhood folks who used to slip him money when he was fending for himself on the streets, even as he cooked $50 plates at restaurants owned by the likes of Seamus Mullen and Charlie Palmer.

Between McDonald’s and his current position as executive chef of Lower East Side gem Freemans Alley, Villarosa has worked in more kitchens than most chefs will in a lifetime. Besides Per Se and Noma, he has held positions in over a diverse dozen other establishments, including the hot-dog stand at Citifield, Charlie Palmer’s Aureole, Pret A Manger and Seamus Mullen’s Tertulia. Before he started at Freemans last month, he was the chef de cuisine at Maison Pickle for two years. Regardless of where he was working or what station he was manning, Villarosa has never forgotten his motto.

But ultimately, “never forget where you come from” means taking everything he’s learned from traversing this extraordinary culinary terrain and putting it back into the soil of the neighborhood that raised him.

More than 1,200 kids have been touched by the Insurgo Project.

In 2013, Villarosa launched the Insurgo Project, an education program that teaches inner-city kids how to cook and grow their own food using sustainable methods as well as practical life skills to encourage entrepreneurship. According to its official website, the initiative’s aim is to “merge local farms, local restaurants, and local chefs with local residents to sponsor environmental sustainability and economic growth.”

Why did a chef who beat implausible odds to make his way through the door of one of the most exclusive kitchens in the world veer off path to teach kids in low-income neighborhoods? Was he simply living by his motto? Yes, but a little advice from one Rene Redzepi didn’t hurt either. The head chef and founder of world-renowned restaurant Noma was one of Villarosa’s many bosses and eventually came to be his most pivotal mentor.

After seeing Redzepi and David Chang speak at a panel, Villarosa shut down the Q&A portion by asking the Noma chef, deadpanned, “How do I work for you?” After a year of emailing back and forth to coordinate the logistics, Redzepi helped him secure a stage stint in his Copenhagen kitchen. Toward the end of Villarosa’s gig, Redzepi sat him down and gave him the most important advice of his life.

“For two hours he sits there and talks to me about how I shouldn’t be the type of chef to reach for the Michelin stars,” Villarosa recounts. “He said I should go back to my community. Take your time to learn from the best chefs, but then give back to the community, teach them what you’ve learned. Bring those people that are behind you up.”

But when he returned to New York, he was presented with an opportunity he couldn’t turn down: a commis position at Per Se. Less than a year into the prestigious gig, however, Villarosa was fired. New York Times critic Pete Wells had just slashed the restaurant’s four stars into two, prompting management to hang up an inspirational quote, inspired by Braveheart: “They can take away our stars, but they can’t take away our freedom.” Moved, Villarosa posted a picture of the quote onto his Instagram. Within hours, he was packing his knives and wiping his station. “It wasn’t because I wasn’t good enough,” he emphasized. “I was fired for some bullshit.”

Villarosa launched the Insurgo Project one year later, with the help of some old friends from childhood and business mentors he had accumulated during his busy career.

For Insurgo’s inaugural event, Villarosa organized a town-hall-style meeting in Washington Heights and invited a panel of chefs from Michelin-starred kitchens to speak. He recalls expecting 25 people from the neighborhood to attend and being shocked to see 120 people packing the space to capacity. Having never been exposed to anything like it before, community members came out in droves to ask questions. Some pushed back.

When attendants started hurling comments like, “I’m not going to start eating quinoa!” the esteemed panel of chefs started spouting overly intellectualized farm-to-table philosophies. That’s when Villarosa saw that there was a glaring disconnect between the chef community and everyday people.

“I realized that there was an immediate need in these neighborhoods to be educated on these simple concepts of knowing where their food comes from,” Villarosa explained. “Knowing the legitimacy of these products and not eating GMO or trash products.”

From there he developed Insurgo’s curriculum philosophy, aptly called the New Hustle, which teaches students not only how to produce and cook food, but also how to turn it into a business. Specific curriculum topics include urban agriculture, hospitality, culinary arts, civic duty and social entrepreneurialism. These topics are taught through experiential projects that allow the students to learn the concepts hands-on. In other words, they grow their own vegetables, learn how to use kitchen equipment and are taught culinary techniques to produce delicious, restaurant-quality dishes.

The program culminates in a full-scale dinner event called the Impact Supper Club, organized by the kids down to every detail, from fundraising to table service. By the end of the course, these kids will have a solid foundation to work in various capacities in the food and hospitality industries. In neighborhoods with tough circumstances, the practical life skills that the Insurgo Project teaches make all the difference.

To date,  more than 1,200 students have gone through the program, located everywhere from Philadelphia to Copenhagen.

Now in its fourth year, the initiative is about to embark on an exciting new chapter, partnering with NYSeed, a green urban development firm that will provide fuller infrastructure for the education initiative. A few of the projects that will come from this collaboration include an official core curriculum for the New Hustle framed around a “Farm, Food, Fun(draising)” theme, developed with the help of chefs, farmers and event organizers; Sprout, a mobile farming system that schools can adopt to support Insurgo’s curriculum; a partnership with South Jersey Family Medical Center to deliver an on-site health and wellness education platform across their network; and a more regular series of Impact Supper Club events. (The next Impact Supper Club will take place in Brooklyn sometime in the fall, so be sure to look out for tickets in the next few months.)

Through it all, Villarosa’s life motto, “Never forget where you came from,” has stuck with him. It’s informed how he treats others in the kitchen, the amount of backbreaking work he puts into every job and the appreciation he has for every second of it. When I asked him if there was ever a moment in his bustling career that challenged this tenet, if he’s ever had to remind himself of it, Villarosa answered without skipping a beat, “No.” Just look to the Insurgo Project for proof.