CHICAGO — Before opening Dream Chef Kitchen and Catering in East Garfield Park, owner Nichelle Benford worked the catwalk, corporate America and the kitchen. But an unexpected detour almost ended her dream before it could begin.
Nichelle was a high fashion model in Europe, working for designer Donna Karan in Milan. But she says she quickly learned she wasn’t cut out for the highs and lows of the industry, and came back home to Chicago. After working for a telecom company, she found that wasn’t a good fit either.
“So, I quit and I went to culinary school and everybody thought I was crazy,” Nichelle said.
She learned to cook as a child, sitting on the kitchen counter and handing spices to the grandmothers who raised her. Cooking put her back in her comfort zone. But just as she was finishing up culinary school at 29 years old, Nichelle was indicted.
“I thought my life was over.”
She says her boyfriend at the time, had been accused of arson and embezzlement. She lied to provide an alibi.
“He was like suicidal, and I didn’t know how to not be there for him. I didn’t live a life of crime. Like I wasn’t a criminal, I was kind of a good girl,” she remembers.
He was never charged, but she was. Nichelle served more than a year in federal prison for perjury and obstruction of justice.
“When I came home, I knew i had to empower myself. So I was just on the grind to build this brand and have my own business,” she said.
She got some help along the way, including from a critically-acclaimed Chicago restaurant that ignored her criminal record, and gave her a job, helping her get back into the restaurant industry.
“They didn’t know I was living in the halfway house working there,” she said. “There is so much shame associated with being a felon and going to prison, and coming home and trying to start over.”
Nichelle realized her own dream in January, serving up healthy comfort food with her restaurant and catering company. She’s also giving that same opportunity to other ex-offenders, hiring them so they too get a chance to build a new life from scratch.
Producer Pam Grimes and Photojournalist Mike D’Angelo contributed to this report.