Portraits of Prosperity
GeQwan Askew, 27
Former Foster Youth and Founder of Housemade Spices
GeQwan, 27, has taken life’s tough-love lessons with a grain of salt and built a culinary career, as well as a successful spice business.
The former foster youth found his passion for food while working in restaurants as a teenager. As his home and work environments changed around him, GeQwan relied on the resilience that he had developed over the years encountering violence and uncertainty before being placed with a foster family.
“I adapt quick. Because throughout my childhood and teen years, everything was always changing. Day by day, you never know what’s going to happen. I had guns pointed at me just for walking my dog, people getting beat, not knowing where your next meal is coming from, all types of stuff. Me observing and doing my best to stay under the radar help me to adapt.”
In his teen years GeQwan took several low-level kitchen jobs, washing dishes and doing basic prep work. He observed the other kitchen staff keenly and learned as much as he could. It wasn’t long before he started taking on more responsibility and progressing up the culinary food chain.
“That progression felt natural, and I don’t think a lot of people can say that. It came natural to me. When the teacher asks you what you want to be, nobody says cook. It’s dark. There’s certain places and events throuought my teen years in the industry that were super dark. It just comes natural because I felt like I was prepared. The yelling, the screaming, that was nothing new to me because my childhood was yelling and screaming. Verbal insults, people always picking at you, that’s no different than the environment I came from. I’m not saying the whole industry is like that, but you’ll come across it.”
Even as a kid, GeQwan had a rare combination of entrepreneurial spirit and indelible work ethic. As a six-year-old, he started selling candy in his neighborhood. As a teenager he started doing the chores that other kids in the foster home refused to do to make extra allowance. It was in that foster home where GeQwan’s potential was first recognized by a father figure and eventual mentor.
During one of the home’s weekly “Chicken and Beef” meetings – where the foster kids discussed whether they were cool with each other or if they had any “beef” to work out – GeQwan received some much-needed guidance.
“One day I was heated, about to do something that would have cost me. He sat me down and worked with me. He said you can’t have people get to you. He worked with me, and that was the support that I never got.”
For GeQwan, the demanding environment of commercial kitchens was a place to escape. The outside world presented challenges and disruptions from gang violence to dishonest individuals to a variety of other things outside of his control, but the kitchen was a blank canvas for GeQwan, a place for him to create and control.
Even though he started at the bottom as a dishwasher and prep cook, GeQwan was always listening and learning from those in front of him. He remembers vividly a lesson he was taught by a high-ranking chef early on.
“He knew I had a lot on my mind. I was still in foster care, thinking about my past and why I’m here. He said whatever it is outside problems and out there, you have to leave that at the door. When you come in this kitchen, it’s a new world that you choose and you create what you want.”
After five years of grinding as a dishwasher and prep cook, GeQwan found another mentor in a head chef that took him in for his first real kitchen job. By then, GeQwan had paid his dues and was ready to take on more responsibilities.
“I told him the truth, that I have autism. That I’m in foster care. He was a genuine person who taught me all that he could. A lot of it was tough love, even though I had this or that. They knew what I wanted was to be treated just like everybody else. That really pushed me.”
GeQwan went on to be a dependable, go-to person for the team. He was quickly selected to help with catering events, where he juggled multiple responsibilities and learned teamwork in a fast-paced environment.
He took that focus and applied it to everything from then on. Whether it’s school, work, or passion projects, he employs the dedication and work ethic that got him through his teen years with plenty of skills and wisdom to show for it.
As a young adult, he traded in all his video games and hit the books. Now he’s constantly researching and looking forward to new business opportunities. His handcrafted spice business has become a successful stepping stone that he hopes to use as a springboard for launching a culinary brand of his own one day.
“I can’t run from it, so I’m going to be all that I can be in this field,” GeQwan says.
As he builds upon a life and career, GeQwan is determined to become a mentor to others and pay it forward. He says that he wouldn’t be in this position without the supportive individuals who gave him guidance when he needed it most.
“You have to pay it forward,” GeQwan said. “The world would be a better place if people started paying it forward.”
Visit the Collaborative Foster Care Program website to learn more about the role of foster parenting in your community..