Stefan DeArmon had made his share of mistakes.
The latest seemed so trivial, but its consequences were profound: The Charleston native hadn’t lived in his hometown for three decades, but with his parents’ health problems mounting, he began to imagine what would happen if one of them had a medical crisis. DeArmon knew he wasn’t financially prepared for any kind of spur-of-the-moment trip. So he relocated instead.
“I’d rather be here than get here,” the 56-year-old U.S. Coast Guard veteran says, more than a year after coming back to Charleston.
What DeArmon didn’t consider beforehand was where he would stay. His parents had reconfigured their living space to better accommodate DeArmon’s mother’s failing eyesight, and there wasn’t a spare room left for DeArmon. In short, he was homeless.
Smoke BBQ owner Roland Feldman had made mistakes, too. His professional resume is studded with impressive names such as Johnson & Wales University, Peninsula Grill and Jennifer Jasinski, the James Beard award-winning Denver chef who Feldman calls his mentor. But it doesn’t hint at the “severe bouts of darkness” that led to Feldman sporting a recovery symbol tattoo.
Because of Feldman’s personal history, he’s made a point of hiring people off King Street, where in 2015 he opened the first fixed location of Smoke BBQ (A second restaurant on Mount Pleasant’s Coleman Boulevard was added last year.) And he didn’t hesitate to hire DeArmon, then a resident of the men’s shelter at One80 Place.
DeArmon started out as a dishwasher, although Feldman prefers the term “steward.” But he was soon handling various kitchen duties, including cornbread prep.
Smoke’s cornbread recipe calls for buttermilk. Once, though, DeArmon got his cartons mixed up and added heavy cream to the batter. “Oh no,” he said to himself, sure Feldman would fire him.
“But he said, ‘Go with it,’” DeArmon recalls. “And it was more moist, it was more tasteful.”
“It was perfect,” says Feldman, who was so impressed that he decided to go into business with DeArmon. They’re now co-owners of a cornbread company, which Feldman imagines doing for cornbread what Callie’s Charleston Biscuits has done for another classic Southern baked good.
“If someone told me this a year ago, I’d say ‘You’re lying,’” says DeArmon. “Something big can come out of a mistake.”
Keeping it local
Feldman met DeArmon at the Charleston Wine + Food Festival in 2017. It was the first year in which One80 Place partnered with the extravaganza to put its culinary program enrollees to work as chef assistants. One80 Place five years ago piloted the training course, now known as Measure Up, as a way to provide chronically unemployed men and women with the skills they would need to thrive in the food service industry.
But One80 Place’s director of operations Angela Dupree also knew the program would need champions in the Charleston restaurant scene, so she gave very explicit advice to the five students selected for the paid Wine + Food gig.
“Chef Angie said, ‘Find a local to work for,’” recalls DeArmon, a member of the class whose previous restaurant experience amounted to a long-ago stint at a Church’s Chicken.
In addition to being assigned tasks in the festival’s main prep kitchen, the helpers from One80 Place were allowed to roam the festival grounds and offer their services to chefs who were hurriedly chopping vegetables for a demo, or breaking down chicken for a tasting station snack.
“I worked for a chef from Alabama; I worked for a chef from Arkansas; I worked for a chef from Tennessee,” DeArmon says. And then he remembered what Dupree had told him: “No one but someone local.”
“I went up to Sorghum & Salt, but the chef was too busy to talk to me,” DeArmon says. “Then I saw Smoke, and I’d eaten there before, so I asked for an opportunity. It was magic.”
When DeArmon showed up, the Smoke crew was so deeply in the weeds that “we’d take anyone,” Feldman admits. Still, he was struck by DeArmon’s positive attitude and the clerical look of the white undershirt peeking out from the collar of his black chef’s coat. Feldman immediately nicknamed him ‘Reverend.’
“I said, ‘Sir, I have never seen a spirit that bright,’” Feldman says. “I was in a place where I needed that.”
Before the night was out, Feldman had offered DeArmon a full-time job.
Brand new way of life
Since November, when DeArmon ostensibly screwed up the cornbread at Smoke, he and Feldman have experimented with various ways to prepare and promote his inadvertent invention. Feldman bought a waffle iron, because he was curious whether a stuffed version of the sweet would sell. Mostly, though, he’s focused on branding the Reverend Cornbread Co., and the man responsible for it.
“He could be the next Southern icon, like Paul Prudhomme,” says Feldman, who now serves the cornbread to every organized culinary tour group that stops by the King Street location and is zeroing in on a package design.
At this point, Reverend Cornbread Co. is a small-scale venture: Its biggest success to date involved DeArmon selling 270 cornbread muffins for $3 apiece at a Second Sunday event on King Street. “If someone enjoys food, that’s almost as good as a paycheck,” DeArmon says. But not quite, which is why Feldman is trying to grow the business so “the Reverend has a sustainable company that can give back to the community and hire folks out of the shelter.”
Already, DeArmon is making return visits to One80 Place to tutor culinary program students in Southern cooking. Recently, he showed them how to cure pork belly. Thinking about the quick transition from homeless student to guest instructor with a home of his own, DeArmon says, “I get goosebumps.”
Three more One80 Place program enrollees will work the Wine + Food Festival this year, along with five program graduates. DeArmon, now an assistant manager at Smoke, will join Feldman for his demos.
“For me, it was life-changing,” DeArmon says of his festival experience. “Being on the street is a different animal. I don’t care what anyone says: You can’t sleep with one eye open. I don’t wish that on anybody. But this is what homeless people need: An opportunity.”