As the clock strikes twelve, 32 boys at the Salvation Army's East Village Residence in New York City file in for lunch. Darryl (not his real name), the first to arrive, orders a cheeseburger, mixed vegetables, and potato salad. But when Chef Matthew Rivers places silverware on the table, the 16-year-old looks at him uncomfortably.
"Can I have a plastic fork?" the boy asks.
"There are no more plastic forks, only silverware," Matthew says.
Darryl lifts the fork reluctantly and begins eating.
"I haven't used silverware in about two years. The metal feels funny in my mouth," he says.
For young men like Darryl who have spent their formative years in institutions, eating on Styrofoam« plates with plastic utensils has become a way of life. But Matthew, executive chef of the Salvation Army's Social Services Department in New York, is trying to show the boys that there is another way to live. In addition to creating a more "normal" atmosphere for meals, Matthew runs a Culinary Apprentice Program at the residence.
More boys enter the dining area and line up for lunch; Matthew is serving. A staff counselor, Kenny Ginyard, escorts some of the boys. He comments on the way they respond to Matthew's leadership.
"They respect Rivers. They know he doesn't take no mess," Ginyard said. "He teaches [the boys] skills and tries to get them to be independent."
Matthew has a commanding presence. But under that tough exterior is a humble man in his early thirties with a compassionate heart for youth. A founding member of the Black Culinarian Alliance, Matthew plays a vital role in helping new chefs organize and execute major annual events. In 1997, he helped launch the Urban Horizons Food Company, where he developed a culinary training program for women making the transition from welfare to work, as well as a catering business and retail takeout service. He has also operated Amazing Grace Caterers, his own company.
He says that working with the culinary program boys, many of whom come from abusive or gang backgrounds, can be tough.
"I know that they have this thing against hearing [correction and instruction], you know?" Matthew says. "A lot of them keep their personal feelings to themselves. They really feel embarrassed about the things that have happened to them, or maybe those situations bring up some sad memories."
Matthew says the holidays are particularly difficult times for the boys.
"It [can be] really depressing for them," Matthew says. "One boy—I never saw him sad. And then, like, the other week, he's ... moping around. I said, 'What's the matter?' 'Oh, it's my sister's birthday,' he says. I guess his family doesn't want him in the home, so he couldn't go and hang out with his sister for her birthday."
Teaching the boys in the culinary arts program poses a tremendous challenge, Matthew says. Some who sign up drop out in a short time. Even the boys who display an initial curiosity about cooking often find it difficult to take instruction.
"When they go in that direction, I just have to let them go because I don't want to get into a confrontation with them."
Matthew has no reason to fear confrontation; he stands over 6 feet tall and has a fourth-degree black belt in karate. (See sidebar.) But he doesn't want to answer anger with anger.
Matthew recalls one incident with a 17-year-old boy.
"He snaps his finger at the other chef. I said, 'That's not the way to get somebody's attention.' "
The young man, who stands 6'3" and weighs about 280 pounds, turned to Matthew and said, "Why don't you mind your business?"
Matthew didn't respond. Later, the young man came to his office.
"What were you getting upset about?" he asked Matthew.
"I don't want you snapping your fingers at the cook. [Instead], say, 'Excuse me, I would like some more....' You'll get better service. If you snap your fingers, you're not going to get anything but an attitude," Matthew explained.
"Hey, Mr. Rivers, I didn't mean ... to get in your face."
"You didn't," Matthew answered. "I'm just trying to teach you right from wrong."
Matthew learned his own values—and many important skills—in his grandmother's kitchen in the Bronx. From her wheelchair, she would talk him through steps she could not take herself. She taught him about cooking so that he could help out while his mother was involved in missions work at the church, or even when she was at home but busy running a neighborhood day-care center. Matthew's dad also had full days. As a New York City undercover detective, he toppled drug kingpins; he also served as president of the Guardians, a black police officers' fraternity.
The Rivers family prefaced every meal, many prepared by Matthew, with food for the soul.
"We had to recite a [Bible] verse before dinner every night," recalls Matthew, who was baptized as a child at the Morning Star Deliverance Church. "And then, we had our devotions. I've started doing the same thing with my kids," he says. Matthew and his wife, Tabbetha, have two children: Pamela, 7, and Cameron, 3.
Matthew's spiritual journey began in earnest after he left home and became a student at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, N.Y.
"I always felt that being a Christian was my decision even though I went to church with my parents until ninth grade," he says. At school, he took the initiative to go to Sunday chapel and to worship services in a non-denominational setting, and to pray at night.
As one of the few blacks on the CIA campus, Matthew also felt a need to be connected to his African-American spiritual heritage. He met a family in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and found a church home with them at Beulah Baptist.
Seeking a bride
Today, John 3:16 is Matthew's favorite Bible verse.
"When I am feeling troubled, it always pops into my head," he says. Matthew uses "0316" as a text-message code to communicate with Tabbetha, his wife.
The process of finding his bride helped Matthew learn more about trusting God.
"I prayed back then, almost on a nightly basis: 'Lord, is this [woman] the one? Is this one the one?' I needed Him to show me."
One day, the Lord told Matthew that Tabbetha was the one for him. Matthew said to her, in a convoluted way, "I don't know if you are thinking about it, but, just in case you were ... I'm not asking you right now, but, you know, I want to marry you."
A few months later, after much prayer, Matthew proposed formally.
"The night before my wedding, I was in the park most of the night, just praying, 'Lord, guide me. Let this marriage work,' " Matthew recalls.
As a teacher at the East Village Residence, Matthew knows that coming up with a recipe for helping young people realize their potential is a daunting task. But he's been working at it since 1999 because he says it's worth the effort.
Matthew remembers one student from Mexico who had been homeless until he was placed in the residence. When the boy got there, he couldn't speak a word of English but learned it, word by word, from Matthew's teaching. Today, that young man is a cadet at the New York City Police Academy. He never misses an opportunity to visit, to catch a meal and a conversation—in English—with Matthew and the others at the East Village Residence.
"There are always two or three kids who will come back later and say, 'Thanks, Mr. Rivers,' " he says with a smile.