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Teach a man to fish: Chef Sean Wilson leads Iowa youth with empathy in nonprofit kitchen


This story is part of the Des Moines Register’s People to Watch in 2020 series. The stories highlight Iowans we expect great things from in the coming year.

Shelby Fleig   | The Des Moines Register
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When the celebrated former chef-owner of Proof restaurant walked into a new position this summer as the culinary lead of a job training program for at-risk youth, he grabbed the cleaning supplies and got to work. 

Sean Wilson scoured floors and kitchen surfaces in The Kitchen DSM for a week straight, he remembers. While scrubbing, he asked questions and listened.

Not only because he finds cleaning cathartic. He needed to earn the trust of the inaugural students of the Justice League of Food, a two-year program teaching young Iowans the ins-and-outs of the food and beverage industry and the interpersonal skills needed to secure a job.

Wilson, a three-time James Beard Award semifinalist for "Best Chef: Midwest,” wanted to quash any assumption that there would be a kitchen hierarchy.

“I didn't come in here and say, ‘This is what we're changing,’” Wilson said of his start as the director of culinary operations at the Justice League of Food. “I said, 'Look, I'm just going to clean and work my way up and organize and get to know where everything is at, and then slowly interject things.' And (the students)...see that, 'OK, he's on our level.'”

Early in his career, Wilson helped develop a food recovery program in Boston and was active in a number of national nonprofits. His mission to feed the hungry and teach others to do the same led him to the Justice League of Food, founded by Nick Kuhn in 2017. 

After moving to Des Moines 13 years ago, having lived on both coasts and abroad, Wilson saw room for improvement in the capital city’s food scene. 

He took over the downtown restaurant Proof in 2010, curating multi-course menus that won national acclaim, including Time Magazine’s title of “Iowa’s Best Restaurant” in two consecutive years. Time named Wilson Iowa’s Best Chef in 2016 and 2017. Wilson sold Proof in July. 

In his new role since August, Wilson teaches his “kids” — who are referred to the apprenticeship by local agencies and caseworkers — how to prepare elevated bar food for patrons of The Hall at The Foundry, a railcar barn-turned-distillery, beer hall and commissary kitchen in the revitalized Valley Junction district. 

While earning paychecks, students learn personal responsibility, time management, and communication skills, Wilson said. Upon graduation, they will be connected to jobs and further education opportunities. 

“They're not broken — they're bent,” Wilson said of the group, several of whom he said have experienced homelessness and poverty and, as a result, anxiety. “Our job is to slowly pressure them to bend where they need it.”

Wilson's past experiences make him especially suited for the job, he said. Born in Brooklyn, New York, Wilson grew up in North Carolina, served four years in the United States Coast Guard, and lived on the east and west coasts before moving to Iowa. He sees himself in his trainees.

"I am these kids," he said. “I come from very meager beginnings and, you know, it was rough. But this industry helped me to figure out a lot of different things.”

His down-to-earth personality and "giving spirit" bolster his leadership style, said Carolyn Jenison, the CEO of Speak PR in Des Moines. She and Wilson worked together to promote Proof starting in 2014, while both were involved in various nonprofits, and have since become friends. 

“He is such a good teacher," Jenison said. "He can meet people where they are and help guide them to where they need to be by matching their energy.”

His talent as a chef is like that of a maestro conducting an orchestra, she said.

"He can be aware of what he wants to complete, which is the symphony, but is also able to understand and manage how individual contributions come together to make that music."

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Wilson equated his ability to create cohesive teams to being a "curator of personalities."

Megan Snyder, whom Wilson hired as a chef de partie in 2013, said he struck a similar balance in the Proof kitchen. Even when preparing a familiar menu item, he could find a new teaching opportunity, said Snyder, now Proof's pastry chef.

Six years later, Snyder said she's tried to adopt a similar management style to Wilson.

"I want people to learn and see that light bulb go off in their heads," she said. "That's something I saw from him daily. He was teaching and inspiring everyone in some form."

During his tenure at Proof, Wilson became involved with several national nonprofits. But the cause he finds himself most drawn to is feeding the hungry — especially hungry children. 

Both he and Jenison said their goal in the nonprofit sector is to "make themselves unemployed."

15 People to Watch in 2020: These Iowans are working for good in the new year

"Unfortunately, I don't see that happening because of how society works," Wilson said. "There's always going to be need."

Wilson believes there is a lack of public awareness of the reality of hunger. It affects neighbors, coworkers and friends who may not show obvious signs of struggle, he said. Nearly 27,000 Polk County residents go hungry, and another 72,000 are food insecure, according to the Partnership for a Hunger-Free Polk County

"It's easy to see in larger cities, but even in a small community, because Des Moines is small, there's a large faction of people that are one paycheck from not knowing where their next meal is coming from," he said. "Some people fall through the cracks."

To grow the Justice League of Food, Wilson said he hopes to open the program to a wider age range and partner with more organizations for post-graduation job placements. With the program still in its infancy, he said he can't know exactly what the new year will bring. 

"We're learning a lot about ourselves and this crazy idea," he said. "Regardless of if I'm the director for the next 50 years for the next five years...I'm always going to be part of it, a founding member. I really believe in it and in our motto: Instead of giving a man a fish, teach a man to fish."

About 'People to Watch'

The Des Moines Register's "15 People to Watch in 2020" are movers and shakers, givers and doers. They were chosen by Des Moines Register news staff from scores of reader nominations. Their stories will run in the Register through Jan. 5.

Get to know Sean Wilson

  • AGE: 42
  • BORN: Brooklyn, New York
  • RESIDENCE: Des Moines, Iowa
  • OCCUPATION: Director of Culinary Operations at the Justice League of Food
  • CLAIMS TO FAME: Three-time James Beard Award semifinalist for "Best Chef" Midwest (2013, 2014, 2015), Time Magazine’s Best Chef Iowa (2016, 2017), Restaurant Magazine's Top 50 Chefs in America (2017)
  • TITLES/POSITIONS of NOTE: Former chef and owner of Proof restaurant
  • WEBSITE: https://www.justiceleagueoffood.org/

Shelby Fleig covers news and features for the Register. Reach her at shelbyfleig@dmreg.com or 515-214-8933.

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