More than two years after Anthony Caldwell secured space to open his own restaurant in Dorchester—and more than 10 years after his life “hit rock bottom,” he says—the chef is finally starting a bright new chapter. Opening in Fields Corner on Wednesday, Jan. 29, with a limited menu and hours to start, 50Kitchen represents a decade of personal and professional growth for Caldwell, whose hard work and intense faith have powered him on a journey from addiction to culinary school to owning his own business. And now that he’s achieved one of his dreams, he’s also prepared to pay it forward by incorporating community outreach programs into the mission of 50Kitchen.
The small, counter-service restaurant, located just a short walk from the MBTA Red Line station at Fields Corner, features a menu of Southern American fare with Asian-inspired twists, such as jambalaya-filled egg rolls, deep fried and served with a spicy gumbo dipping sauce; crispy fried chicken with a waffle, drizzled in rosemary-infused maple syrup; a smoked brisket banh mi; and sides like kimchi and collard greens. There’s a selection of canned beer and wines by the glass, plus a modest number of seats for dining in, and 50Kitchen will also offer takeout. Phone orders will be possible in the future, Caldwell says.
Sometime this spring, Caldwell plans to launch a weekly, three-course “Chef’s Table” menu, where he can showcase more formal plated dishes for an accessible, fixed price. In addition, the Dorchester native plans to use 50Kitchen’s platform to give back to his hometown in two major ways: By launching a youth mentoring partnership with a nearby middle school, where he will invite into his restaurant students who are interested in the culinary arts; and also by personally reaching out to people who are experiencing homelessness in Boston.
“I’m going to go out in the city with food,” Caldwell says. “Regardless of what their situation is, I want to get their name, shake their hand, feed them—and before I walk away from them, I’m asking them if I can pray for them. Because once, that person that lost hope was me.”
The 51-year-old, first-time restaurant owner was counting his blessings during a recent tour of his newly-constructed 50Kitchen. After all, Caldwell believes his restaurant is the direct result of choosing to leave behind his life on the streets in favor of a close relationship with God, his community at Jubilee Christian Church in Mattapan, and his wife, Evette, whom he met in 2014.
It’s been a long, hard road. Caldwell left his mother’s home in one of Dorchester’s housing projects at age 16, and later spent years behind bars in the 1990s and early 2000s, he says. By 2008, he was out of jail, but he found himself struggling with society’s everyday challenges: Caldwell recalls one incident when he found himself yelling out to a Mass. Pike tollbooth operator across lanes of traffic, frustrated because he didn’t know how to pay his way (as a parolee, he didn’t want to get in trouble). After a few minutes, he realized was was simply supposed to pull the ticket and pay later.
Caldwell, the father of four daughters, was a line cook at Legal Sea Foods during this time period. “My work ethic has always been been strong regardless of how much I drank. I love the kitchen,” Caldwell adds. He’s still in touch with his former supervisor at Legal. But drinking and smoking weed became his main escape from the day’s difficulties, and there were very low moments. “I’d go on my lunch break and come back 30 minutes later rocking, like a sailboat, because I’m so twisted,” Caldwell says. In 2009, he came dangerously close to committing suicide before a niece talked him out of it, he recalls.
In 2010, Caldwell would hang out with friends after long days at Legal—drinking, smoking pot, watching YouTube clips, and cooking for his buddies. It was during these get-togethers, and inspired by videos from rapper 50 Tyson, when Caldwell invented the concept of “50Kitchen”. It was his imagined destination after the monotonous routine of work, the perfect place for last call: “I said [to myself,] ‘I’m going to 50Kitchen to get something to eat.’ I thought, it has a ring to it.”
Soon after, Caldwell had a dramatic premonition that changed his life: “I heard this voice say, ‘If you don’t stop drinking, your career is going to go downhill and you are going to die.” He says he heard it three times, increasingly loud and insistent. It was a Wednesday, and Caldwell continued to hit the bottle for the rest of the week. But on Sunday, September 25, 2011—a date he’ll always remember—Caldwell went to Jubilee, where the day’s sermon was about healing. It was during that sermon when he denounced alcohol and cannabis, he says. A few days later, he adds, the voice returned with another message: “‘Stop drinking, live your life for me, and I’ll give you your own kitchen by age 50.'”
Caldwell believes the voice belonged to God, and he credits that divine conversation with pushing him forward. After he quit drinking, Caldwell left his seven-year job at Legal and soon landed in the kitchens of MIT, where he met a mentor who encouraged him to enroll in culinary school at Massasoit Community College. After graduating, Caldwell took a new job as an executive sous chef, eventually climbing out of his past desperation to make a good salary.
“Every single place I went, there was another level of elevation,” Caldwell says. “I got something out of every single stop that he [God] put me through.”
Despite the more comfortable life his paycheck afforded, Caldwell couldn’t get that divine promise out of his mind. In 2017, when he 49 years old, Caldwell was working a day job as a sous chef at Harvard University, as well as operating 50Kitchen as a catering company out of his church. He later ran it out of Commonwealth Kitchen, a small business-incubator in Dorchester.
It was through Commonwealth Kitchen that Caldwell heard about a small-business pitch contest, organized by the Fields Corner Collaborative and Travis Lee, the landlord of Caldwell’s future storefront. After getting the blessing of his wife, Caldwell entered—and then he won.
Winning the pitch contest earned him the opportunity to build out the long-empty space, a one-time tax office, and turn it into his dream business. He also received a discount on several months of rent, as well as free small business coaching from RealFood Consulting, a firm whose client list has included the Harvard Club of Boston, George Howell Coffee Company, and top-ranked restaurants such as Tasting Counter. But from managing contractors to hiring staff, it’s still taken a lot of time and toil to open 50Kitchen.
“You want to make sure that you can get over [every issue] as quickly as you can, so you can start generating [revenue], and so every delay is like a ton of bricks. I don’t think people understand,” says Evette Caldwell. “I’m so so proud of him, because he could have really lost it a long time ago with every delay.”
For his part, Anthony Caldwell actually credits his hard-knock past. “All of that incarceration preserved me,” says the chef, who could pass for 40 in appearance and energy. “I believe I’m still pretty fast in the commercial kitchen, and I’m 51. If I was still drinking and smoking, I’d have been beat up by now,” he says.
Of course, Caldwell knows that running a restaurant won’t be easy. Now that the doors to 50Kitchen are open, there will be days when the line of people snakes out the door. There will be nights when order tickets print out faster than his team can cook them up. There will be utility issues and staffing challenges to come. His stress levels will be high—but now, unlike during his most desperate days, it will be the kind of stress that makes the chef thrive.
50Kitchen is softly open through Saturday, Feb. 1, from 1-5 p.m. Beginning Tuesday, Feb. 4, it’s open daily from 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sundays). 1450 Dorchester Ave., 617-474-2433, 50kitchen.com.
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