MEDINA, Ohio — They say the way to someone’s heart is through their stomach, and for Todd Whitman, the executive chef at Serenite Restaurant in Medina, that couldn’t hold more true.
“People come here for the mission once and then the food you gotta execute on the food correctly and we do, so they come back,” he said. “We are a culinary school for alcoholics and addicts.”
The restaurant is changing hearts and minds, one upscale, French dish at a time.
“This place is great if you just need to change your life,” said Cary Granakis, the general manager.
All of the employees at Serenite are students who have either applied, were referred from drug court or other legal avenues and then screened to be a part of the program.
It’s a program that Whitman and Granakis both know work.
“I’m personally in recovery myself,” said Whitman.
Granakis graduated from the program in 2018.
“I needed purpose,” he said.
The students spend 8.5 months at Serenite.
“When the students first come in they spend 6 weeks in the recovery center, next door, to make sure this is a good fit for them, We give them resources, life skills, 12-step meetings, parenting classes, GED if they need to get their GED— all types of different stuff,” said Whitman.
After that, they still attend recovery classes, but they are immersed in courses at Serenite, learning the ins and outs of both the back of the house and front of the house.
“It’s not just all about the culinary school. It’s about them changing their lives, being employed, staying clean and sober and being successful,” said Whitman.
Whitman said he has executive chefs from throughout Northeast Ohio calling and asking for graduates they can hire.
And the program’s recipe for success is getting public notice, not just with the high accolades from food critics, but the waitlist for students who want to participate is growing.
The addiction and recovery classes used to be held in the upstairs portion of the restaurant at 538 W. Liberty Street. Now, the Recovery Center of Medina County hosts its classes at a new building right next door.
Mark Dawson is a current student in the program and has been sober for 5 months. He said Serenite is unlike any other program he’s entered before.
“It’s been a difficult road but it’s been a really good experience being sober,” said Dawson.
And while Whitman wants to take in more students, the price to keep it all up and running isn’t cheap.
“It cost us $20,000 to train the students. We pay them, train them and help them get a job,” he said.
But he notes the community has continued to step up and support the restaurant. Just last month, Serenite’s first fundraiser raised $60,000.
“The more that we can get help from the community and resources from people, we can keep having more students come in,” he said. “We are just scratching the surface of what we can do.”