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Chef-Activist Kurt Evans Will Staff His Upcoming Pizzeria With Ex-Offenders

Inspired by South Philly Barbacoa’s activism, the Philly chef wants to help former prisoners reenter the community and find work after incarceration

Kurt Evans at a Cooking for the Culture collaborative dinner at South
Kenneth St. George

Chef Kurt Evans is taking the idea behind his End Mass Incarceration dinner series several steps further with Down North, his upcoming North Philly pizza shop. The restaurant, at 28th and Lehigh in the city’s Strawberry Mansion section, will employ ex-offenders in a move to help former prisoners reenter the community and find work. He hopes it have it up and running in mid-November.

Evans, a sous chef at South, the restaurant and jazz club on North Broad, was originally inspired by the activism of South Philly Barbacoa’s Cristina Martinez and Ben Miller. After getting national attention for chef Martinez’s lamb tacos, the couple started using their platform to advocate for immigrant rights and bring light to issues faced by undocumented workers. Martinez, a Mexican immigrant who will be featured on the next season of Netflix’s Chef’s Table, is undocumented.

Evans got involved in Martinez and Miller’s Right to Work dinners, which sparked the idea for his own food-fueled community project. His End Mass Incarceration series raises money for programs like Books Through Bars while fostering discussion about the criminal justice system. The Farmacy in University City hosted the first dinner in January 2018. The second was at Martinez and Miller’s El Compadre — a sister spot to South Philly Barbacoa.

“Working with Ben and Cristina, seeing them fight for immigrants’ rights and undocumented workers, inspired me,” Evans says.

Recently, a friend of Evans who owns the building at 2804 W. Lehigh Avenue, on the same block as the Free Library’s Widener branch, approached Evans about reopening a defunct pizza shop on the first floor and giving it a community-minded component. The proposal was a good fit for the chef: He had made it a point to hire ex-offenders at his now-closed Route 23 Cafe on Germantown Avenue.

“I wanted to make that a priority, bringing people who were formerly incarcerated back into the community, back into the workforce,” Evans says. “Cooking is a skill a lot of people have, and can pick up. At Route 23, people would come in with decent skills, and then as the months went on they picked up how to work in a kitchen. They learned different techniques.”

Down North at 28th and Lehigh
Kurt Evans

Evans has no plans to leave his current position at South, so he needed someone to run Down North. Through Cooks Who Care, he met Alencia Smith, a chef who was formerly incarcerated, and brought her on board to operate the new restaurant. They’re working with the nonprofit Philabundance to select staff.

Gregory Headen, who went to culinary school after prison, was in Stephen Starr’s and Georges Perrier’s orbits at top Philly kitchens before joining Evans at South. He’s offered to teach kitchen skills to Down North employees. Craig Russell of Talk, the new Rittenhouse restaurant from the Marigold Kitchen team, also asked to get involved. “A lot of chefs are offering their support,” Evans says.

Since the Down North location was previously a pizza shop, Evans doesn’t have to put in too much work to make it usable again. He plans to open the restaurant in November, with a straightforward menu of pies, wings, fries, and shakes. “We want it to be affordable for the community. We’re next to Widener Library — we want kids from the neighborhood who are coming to the library and doing their homework to be able to afford it,” he says.

The name is a nod to local slang. “No matter where you are in Philly, even if you’re in South Philly, if you’re headed to North Philly we say, ‘down north,’” says Evans, who grew up around 46th and Woodland. “It’s like, ‘I’m about to go down north real quick.’”

The next End Mass Incarceration dinner is October 28 at Win Win Coffee Bar (931 Spring Garden Street). With chef Elijah Milligan, Evans also puts together Cooking for the Culture, a collaborative dinner series that highlights talented black chefs in Philly. The next Cooking for the Culture installment is October 1 at Fine Palate (231 S. 15th Street).