When I finally meet Octavius, it’s at the Welcome Table. He’s disgusted by my preference to have all foods touch. So naturally, I have to play it up. I stab a bite of pork chop, salad and dessert all at once and airplane it to my own mouth. “Mmmmmm. That’s what I’m talking about.” Meanwhile, Octavius is building a Great Wall of Biscuits so that there is absolutely zero interaction between sides. Moments later, our good-intentioned server plops an extra serving of meat over Octavius’s rice. I look at him, ready for a total meltdown. But we both crack: laughing ‘til our sides cramp.
Days later, and after witnessing his profound Baptism, I ask Octavius if he’s up for chatting. He has just made an omelet and is crushing potato chips on top. I give him a look and he immediately knows why. “It’s not what it looks like! This is an exception! I’m just using the chips for flavor!” This opens the discussion about salt, about savory, about cooking which leads to a little secret our friend, Octavius, has been keeping from me. A few years ago, seeking departure from a life that was not serving him, Octavius became enrolled in Green Opportunities and through that partnership, attended AB Tech’s culinary program—quickly joining the line at Bull and Beggar, and eventually landing the title of Executive Chef at Hotel Indigo. [Click here to read a great article on this chapter of Octavius’s story] I should have known. Professional chefs always do weird things when it comes to their own food…like building biscuit walls and using Lay’s Classics as a seasoning substitute.
We make our way towards the end of the hall; the spot in Respite where all the sun comes pushing through the windows. Octavius wants to start his story at age 11. He wants to start it on the streets of Baltimore. He wants to begin at the point where he witnesses his father’s death. Three gunshots. Point-blank.
Octavius wants to begin here because it’s where he can mark the trauma on the map. It’s where he says an intelligent kid lost his chance because there was so much grief and nowhere to put it. It’s where all the sadness turned to bad behavior and ripped him right off track.
By twenty, Octavius felt the call to turn his life around. This is the part about culinary school, about awards and recognition, some personal resurrection. I like this part because Octavius lights up. He describes purées, roux, and reductions until my mouth waters. His passion feels tangible and highly contagious.
I wish I could wrap this story up here, but the reality is I’m sitting with Octavius at the end of the hallway of the Haywood Street Respite. This is a place where people come to heal and that is why Octavius is here. He is healing from the damage caused by two bullets, one still lodged near his lower spine. He is healing from the post-traumatic stress of a drive-by shooting, in downtown Asheville, on a Sunday night.
I tell Octavius he doesn’t have to talk about this part at all. Or, he can talk about it all. He breaks it down into three moments. The moment he realized everything around him was too quiet. The moment a car pulled up and nearly stops. And the moment there was no pain, just the warmth of blood soaked clothing and the buckling of his knees.
Octavius was shot with a Desert Eagle, semi-automatic handgun. Both bullets entered his body from the back, above the waist. As mentioned, one bullet remains near his spine. On the sidewalk where he went down, through his transport to the hospital, and under the fluorescent lights of an operating room, Octavius says he kept his focus on one person: his daughter. “Stay alive for her. Keep breathing for her. Do not go to sleep. For her.”
Octavius tells me it’s all about presentation. It’s nice to have good ingredients. Correct combinations are crucial. Preparation must be on point. But in the end, you cannot fall short of presenting your efforts in a way that inspires. “It’s a matter of minutes until your art is destroyed. But it’s got to be beautiful. Even for that brief moment before the first bite.”
Octavius is determined to walk again. He wants to be a better father and a mentor to at-risk youth. I think over the past few months, Octavius has been stepping up to his most challenging recipe yet. The ingredients he’s been given are hard to work with. He’s been wrestling technique with limited tools and preparation has been an exhausting endeavor. But, I see him dreaming about that final product. How he’s going to arrange all the parts. I can feel—how what Octavius is working on serving up, holds all the potential to be his most inspiring presentation yet.
Written by Brook, HSC Lead Storyteller