Open Gate Kitchen in Costa Mesa dishes out hope, opportunity

When he lost his dad at the age of 13, Michael Rodriguez looked for ways to fill the void.

He turned to the neighborhood gang for support, and he had already begun experimenting with drugs a short time after. He was selling drugs just to get by.

“Once my dad died when I was 13, I wanted that love,” said Rodriguez, 25, of Stanton. “They all showed me love. I felt loved after my dad died, and I started hanging around with the wrong people, started using drugs, tried heroin after he died.

“I tried it a few times. I wasn’t addicted to it, but I liked the feeling. It kept me away from reality … about losing my dad.”

One thing led to another. By 14, Rodriguez was intermittently homeless. By 17, Rodriguez found a drug he had promised his dad he would never do in methamphetamine.

“I just cracked,” he recalled. “I tried it out. It was bad for a few years.”

Rodriguez said a family friend told him about a culinary school in Costa Mesa called Open Gate International, and it has become his way out.

The program takes aim at equipping people from vulnerable life situations with a skill set to find gainful employment, but also the life skills to make good choices.

Both Rodriguez and his stepbrother, David Lopez, 30, work for Open Gate Kitchen, the restaurant and proving ground for the culinary school’s graduates.

Open Gate International, an Orange County-based culinary school and nonprofit organization, has produced 138 graduates since it was launched in January 2017.

Guarded as one with his past might be, Rodriguez recounted that he would seldom talk to anyone when he entered the program. He learned to love it and said that Open Gate marked his first graduation of any kind, a broad smile showing on his face as he talked about the happiness it brought him.

Rodriguez is married. He has fathered two children from two different women, and he also has a stepdaughter. His outlook on life has improved dramatically. He says he has stayed away from drugs, with his kids serving as the motivation.

“We both lived that life,” Rodriguez said of himself and his stepbrother trying to turn their lives around. “We’re just trying to change now. We’re trying to progress.

“We’re trying to get a house together. From kids doing crimes and going to jail together to now we’re working, getting paychecks, saving.”

Open Gate Kitchen owner and founder Deidre Pujols, the wife of Albert Pujols, at Open Gate Kitchen in Costa Mesa.

Open Gate Kitchen owner and founder Deidre Pujols, the wife of Albert Pujols, at Open Gate Kitchen in Costa Mesa. Pujols’ nonprofit organization takes people from vulnerable life situations and gives them an opportunity to have sustained life success by learning the culinary arts.

(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Human trafficking had been an issue that Deidre Pujols, 44, a champion for vulnerable populations and the wife of Angels baseball star Albert Pujols, wanted to address. Open Gate International grew out of those efforts.

A trip abroad to several countries for Pujols with her good friend Judy Lamborn, 54, sought to find out the answer to three key questions — What is human trafficking? Who is involved in the fight against it? What can we do about it?

“We met with law enforcement [and] we met with nonprofit organizations that were involved in the rehabilitation of survivors,” said Lamborn, the executive director of Open Gate International. “Every single one of them said, ‘At the end of the rehabilitative process, there’s nothing to bridge the gap from rehabilitation to reintegration.’”

Pujols decided after that trip, which Lamborn said included stops in Mexico, Brazil, India and Cambodia, that the nonprofit would be created, providing vocational training and employment opportunities for survivors of human trafficking.

The culinary school, led by Global Executive Chef Cinthia Worsey, 44, of Long Beach can accommodate up to 20 students for a 12-week program. Open Gate expanded its reach to include other vulnerable populations, including those struggling with addiction, at-risk youth aging out of the foster care system, the homeless and the previously incarcerated.

Lamborn, who is in charge of the life skills mentoring portion of the Open Gate operation, has the ability to empathize with many who enter the program. She shared her background as a former prostitute, drug addict and alcoholic.

Now, she travels back and forth from St. Louis, helping individuals move past their undesirable past.

“It’s one thing to get free,” Lamborn said. “It’s all together something different to stay free, and fortunately, we’ve had that happen.”

Pujols and her family, who live in Irvine, have placed a strong emphasis on faith in their lives.

“Watching somebody believe nothing about themselves or their existence to being fulfilled and knowing that they have a purpose on this planet, watching them smile, have confidence, watching them now be armed with a skill in culinary arts … that’s the kingdom-building stuff that I believe I’m here on Earth to do,” Pujols said.

Worsey also sees changing lives for the better as the most rewarding part of her job. She said that 75% of eligible graduates have been placed in culinary positions.

“Being able to do what I love and share that with others while changing lives is so special,” Worsey said. “Here at OGI, I’ve become a part of the process of changing lives and seeing students start to feel worthy and proud of themselves.”

The Open Gate International program is free for students. In 2021, Pujols hopes to expand by providing three 15-week programs, which will include 12 weeks in the class and three weeks of on-the-job training.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the culinary class was interrupted eight weeks into the program. Open Gate Kitchen opened anyway.

During those early months, the café was only open for lunch. Open Gate Kitchen extended its hours this week to include breakfast, and added to its menu, and is now open from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

“We did open during COVID, which I was fine with because I really felt like our team needed a chance to get their feet wet with a few customers, [to] learn a little bit about how things go,” Pujols said. “It kind of has just slowly grown, and it’s been really amazing. We were able to cater to the Angels taxi squad in Long Beach all season long. We were able to feed the Angels Major League Baseball team a few times this year, as well, and do a few other catering gigs.”

The Open Gate International program has also provided opportunities to students in Cambodia, India, Mexico City and Moldova, Pujols said. She added that they are working on starting a program in Uganda.

Albert Pujols is now fifth on the all-time home run list with 662. Deidre Pujols said that it became imperative that the couple knew what they stood for as her husband’s career took off in baseball. The significance of that is ingrained in them by how the community looks up to them.

She added that it is important to let people know that it does not matter what they were born into. Rather, she said she believes that it is what a person turns their life into that matters.

“You have two important numbers in your life, which is your birth and your death, and that dash is so significant,” Pujols said, holding up her thumb and finger to display a symbolic gap. “If the dash is like this big so far because you don’t feel like you’ve contributed to the world, then make it bigger. Do something. Make a plan.”

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