Cuthbert Hurtault moves with precision as he swiftly slices an avocado, wielding a long knife to remove the pit before tossing each half into a big bowl.
He repeats this process — slice, split, toss — over and over until his crate of avocados is empty.
The time-consuming act of making fresh guacamole during the solitude of the morning hours is Hurtault's favorite task as prep manager at the Taco Boy in downtown Charleston. It's a far cry from how he used to spend his days when he was homeless, sleeping under bridges and constantly searching for his next meal.
"It’s shining real bright on this side of the wall right now," said Hurtault, who goes by Eto.
Hurtault, 47, was hired as a dishwasher at Taco Boy five years ago after completing the kitchen program at Crisis Ministries, now One80 Place. He credits the restaurant with giving him a chance. Managers there say they're lucky to have him.
He was eager to work following over a year of homelessness. Hurtault said he was "going through a phase," jobless and in a rocky relationship, when he started living on the streets. After about a month of sleeping outside, he found shelter and assistance with getting back on his feet at Crisis Ministries.
"I just went on my way and I didn’t want to bother my family too much," he said. "Sometimes you have to do some things and straighten your life out on your own. I wanted to do it myself."
The Lowcountry Homeless Coalition found that 550 people were living on the streets or in shelters during a one-night tally in January 2016 in Berkeley, Beaufort, Charleston, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper counties. Eighty-four percent of those individuals lived in Charleston County. Over the past year, Charleston saw a 6 percent increase in requests for emergency food assistance, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors' Annual 2016 Hunger and Homelessness Report.
The gig at Taco Boy gave Hurtault independence — and a lot of hours. About three months after he was hired he moved out of the shelter and into a rented home in North Charleston, where he now lives with his wife.
At work, his managers marvel at his timeliness; Hurtault is always early, even though he takes the bus. In his role managing four employees, he aims to keep the atmosphere fun.
"He's very humble. He's always positive. He gets in there and does his work," said Shannon Smith, Taco Boy's social media marketing manager, who used to work at the restaurant with Hurtault.
Hurtault is a "great success story" from a kitchen program that's evolved in recent years, said Marco Corona, director of development for One80 Place.
The six-week course averages about five to six participants. People learn the basics of navigating the kitchen, such as knife skills and food preparation, and also receive lessons from guest chefs. The sessions conclude with a week-long externship at a restaurant. Partners have included Magnolias, Cannon Green and Fat Hen.
Eighty percent of graduates over the last five sessions have landed jobs, which is the ultimate goal, Corona said.
"That does provide them with that real-world experience," he said. "We’re not looking to make someone the next Gordon Ramsay."
Hurtault was content to start with dishwashing. His work experience up until that point had been focused on construction and labor-intensive jobs. He hadn't dabbled in the kitchen.
Co-workers who heard Hurtault's story made efforts to pull him aside and show him the ropes of food prep, such as how to make tortilla chips without burning them.
"That’s kind of how I really said, 'I can do this,' " he said. "I don’t think I would’ve liked the industry if I just came head on and tried because I wouldn’t know anything."
Now he's looking forward.
"I want to go back to school. ... This time I think I’m going to go ahead and take me a couple of cooking classes," Hurtault said. "I’ve got things laid out. It isn’t a master plan, but it’s a plan."