During a sunny winter afternoon last December, Brian Bragg, a patron at Inspiration Kitchens, 3504 W. Lake St., in East Garfield Park was sitting at a long table with some friends. He was finding it hard imagining future visits to this warehouse-turned-restaurant without willfully falling under Valerie Wilmington’s spell.

It could be the way she describes the dishes. What were some of her recommendations?

“Shrimp and grits is the number one seller here. Catfish Po Boy. And they make the best gumbo, unbelievable gumbo because here we do things with a twist,” she said during a tour of the kitchen she gave reporters moments before attending to Bragg.

“When I say with a twist — you’re used to having gumbo with rice,” she said. “Well, we’ve taken that rice, rolled it into a ball, floured and corn-mealed it and deep-fried it. So now you’ve got some cornbread out of it with a rice ball that sits right in the center of your bowl of gumbo. It is amazing. It is amazing. Everything is done here with a whole lot of love.”

“In terms of her customer service and the way that she cares for folks — you’d think you were at the Drake,” Bragg said. “She always remembers a face and a name. She makes you feel like you’re family.”

After nearly five years commuting between her South Side home and this easily overlooked facility right off of the Green Line and across the street from the Garfield Park Conservatory, Wilmington (who is affectionately known as Ms. V., or Val) was leaving.

“I take two trains and a bus from the South Side to get here,” she said at the time. “I arrive at around 9:00 a.m. and leave about 3:00 or 4:00 p.m.”

Despite her South Side residency, one diner referred to Wilmington as the ‘mother of the West Side.’ Sean Cunneen, the associate director of social enterprise at Inspiration Corporation — Inspiration Kitchens’ mother organization, said Wilmington “has really been our link to the local area.”

Cunneen said when the more than 7,000 square foot former textile factory opened in 2011 as an 80-seat restaurant, they needed someone with roots in the area to bridge the divide between the new and the old.

The link was important, particularly considering Inspiration Corporation’s unique mission. The organization began as Inspiration Café, an operation that started in 1989 out of a red wagon borrowed by Lisa Nigro, who at the time was a Chicago Police officer on leave. She wanted to feed Chicago’s homeless coffee and sandwiches that were a step above the standard soup-kitchen fare.

From that café, Nigro expanded her operation into a sport utility vehicle before moving into a building in Northside Uptown. Through a series of partnerships and mergers, Nigro’s Inspiration Café became folded into Inspiration Corporation — a social service agency that provides workforce development, housing services and supportive services, among other resources designed to foster self-reliance, to those who need them.

“She saw my beginning”

The two Inspiration Kitchens in Uptown and East Garfield Park are described as the social enterprise restaurants of their parent Inspiration Corporation. Their motto: Dine Well. Do Good.

That “unbelievable gumbo”? It was likely prepared, and then served, by an ex-convict or someone who might have been living under an underpass just a year ago. And if that person came to Inspiration Corporation between 2011 and late 2015 looking for culinary training to get back on his feet, he was likely nurtured, and like Braggs captivated, by Ms. V.

Arnold Smith, 46, had been to prison six times before he came into the East Garfield Park Inspiration Kitchen three years ago.

“When I first came in here, I was scared,” Smith said. “I was apprehensive. I didn’t know what to expect or whether this was for me.”

Arneice Edwards, a case manager, said eligible participants must first go through an orientation process, which requires them to take an English and math test before beginning the 13-week program. They’re required to earn a 70 percent on the test before undergoing an assessment interview designed to evaluate their goals and motivations. After the assessment, they must undergo four weeks of employment preparation, which includes interview coaching, before beginning nine weeks of culinary instruction.

For Smith, this was all a foreign ritual, but he said Wilmington — who he considers something of an adopted mother — encouraged him to stick with the program.

“She saw my beginning, my middle … and now I’m working two jobs,” Smith said. “She was an inspiration to me. She truly fits into the word inspiration. Somewhere in there, her name should be engraved. She was such a beacon of light.”

Wilmington may have developed that foresight, the ability to see potential in people who society may have written off, during her years as a foster parent. She said the experience opened her eyes to a harsh, but often overlooked, reality.

“My first love is children. I wound up taking in two children from DCFS [Department of Children and Family Services], and the experience opened up another avenue,” Wilmington said. “I learned things I didn’t know about as far as how many children are in the system. There are a whole group of children aged out of the system.”

Those “aged out” youth, or individuals who exit the foster care system after they turn 18 years old, are the precursors to people like Arnold Smith. They’re children, Wilmington said, “who never fully got their bearing and, all of a sudden, they’re placed out in this big world out there. And if you’ve never been given a foundation, you don’t have a grasp of what you’re in for.”

Wilmington said she sees her passion for reclaiming people writ large in Inspiration Kitchens’ business model and mission.

“I love, love what Inspiration stands for,” she said. “I’ve seen people come here from the streets, from prison, the whole nine, and I’ve seen their lives turned around.”

Employment opportunity 

“We’ve had a history of working with really the toughest people to get employed,” said Cunneen. “Around 60 percent of our participants have violent records, a lot are ex-offenders. Food service, though, is one of the industries where someone can genuinely reestablish themselves and have a lifelong career.”

Cunneen said that between 55 and 60 percent of those who enroll in Inspiration’s training program graduate — around 70 people per year. Those who complete the program are likely to find work. Inspiration’s job placement rate is around 85 percent, Cunneen said.

As she stood in the restaurant’s pantry area, Wilmington boasted that many of her program participants — people she calls her family — have started their own food service vending businesses and launched successful careers as chefs.

According to Cunneen, some of the biggest employers of Inspiration graduates include giant food service conglomerates like Aramark Corporation and Sodexo, and upscale, celebrity chef-owned establishments like Mario Batali’s Eataly and Stephanie Izard’s Little Goat Diner.

“We have a transitional jobs program once they graduate, where we will pay their first 30 days’ wages in any kitchen in the city and the idea behind that is it will incentivize an employer to try somebody out to see if that person will fit in the kitchen,” Cunneen said.

Some Inspiration participants, however, have dropped out of the program multiple times, Wilmington conceded — and have had multiple second chances, in turn.

“Once they come to this program, they are family and when they fall down, we pick them back up and welcome them with open arms,” she said.

That grace and largesse doesn’t stop at program participants, Wilmington said. It extends to the surrounding neighborhood — from the people to the streetscape.

Families in need can dine for free on gourmet courses like grilled endive salad, pepper vinegar short rib and crispy goat cheese. According to Cunneen, the restaurant’s original mission was to serve meals to the working poor at below market rates. The crispy goat cheese, which is served with creole sauce, cornbread and orange marmalade, goes for $8.

Some residents who started as frequent diners have become employees of the place. Amanda Colver, Inspiration’s East Garfield Park sales manager, lives within sight of the restaurant and within walking distance of the Garfield Park Conservatory. She said when a sales position opened, she felt compelled to apply. It was right in her neighborhood.

“I love what I do over here,” she said. “I love being in Garfield Park. A lot of people don’t know this is here. When I bring friends here, they’re have no idea.”

Reclaiming space

In reclaiming lives, Inspiration has also reclaimed a physical space. When Inspiration opened its doors in 2011, Cunneen said, it was the first sit-down restaurant to open in the neighborhood in more than 50 years.

The restaurant’s parent organization raised $2.5 million to transform an abandoned warehouse into an award-winning building that features “energy-efficient kitchen exhaust, a solar thermal hot water system, and a superior building envelope, the use of recycled wood, as well as bike racks and shower facilities,” according to an architectural overview written when the building won the 2013 Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence.

The tables and chairs in the restaurant were custom built from reclaimed barn wood by a relative of one of the project’s primary funders. Above their heads, diners can see the original woodwork from the textile looms. In its vegetable garden, adjacent the parking lot, Inspirations grows fresh produce like basil, mint and strawberries.

In addition to the Rudy Bruner award, the building has also garnered accolades the Chicago Architecture Foundation, the Chicago Association of Realtors and the U.S. Green Building Council of Illinois, among others.

Other ambitions

“This has been by far the most rewarding journey I’ve ever taken. I’m so thankful that this part of my life happened,” Wilmington said, before explaining the reason she was leaving the place she had considered home for more than four years. The adoptive mother of many said she wants to go into the business of first chances.

She said she had been planning on teaming up with a burgeoning South Side organization that would service younger people.

“I’m hoping to be as big a part of that as I feel I’ve been with Inspiration Kitchens and I’m hoping to save some youth before they get to the age of incarceration and drug use,” Wilmington said. “That is my hope.”

And besides, Wilmington said, it’s high time for her to make way for the people she’s raised up — her surrogate sons and daughters in the kitchen.

“I’m almost 60 years old. I have trained some really great people and they can shine. Sometimes you’ve got to move out the way and let them shine,” she said. “I’m hoping that’s what I’m doing and what I’ve learned I’ll be able to take that to that next group of young people”