Casey Mooney checked himself into rehab to escape a four-year drug habit one decade ago. Not only did the experience bring him sobriety and closer to God, but also equipped him with the knowledge and skills to work as a professional chef.

Mooney, a former Red Oak High student, was assigned to the kitchen and garden crew while he attended Adult Teen Challenge, a rehab center in Como-Pickton which is a small town east of Sulphur Springs. The faith-based recovery program has been closed for the past three years but helped about 25 troubled men every year after it was established.

“I spent 18 months there, and it changed my life,” Mooney emphasized.

Mooney detailed his journey just after he sat down at a two-top table near a window of White Rhino Coffee + Kitchen in Waxahachie while sporting his chef attire that included tweezers in his front pocket that are used to plate dishes. His rolled sleeves exposed his colorful tattoos and, as he explained the other intricate tools in the front of his apron, his knuckles read "PURE GOLD."

He flashed back to his early days in drugs and explained it started with dabbling into psychedelics into uppers and eventually methamphetamine. The drugs became a lifestyle and ultimately his source of income as well. He found himself in and out of jail and on probation. After the last time was jailed, he went to his ex-girlfriend's place and went back into the swing of things partying. He remembered everything that could go wrong that night did — it was his rock bottom.

His whole life seemed to have crashed down, and for the first time in four years, he thought, “’It’s time. You’ve ran long enough.’ I was tired.”

“I kept hearing about this Teen Challenge my parents wanted me to go to,” Mooney explained. “I never wanted to go because it was faith-based and wasn’t my scene.”

Once he arrived at the 70-acre property with other troubled men, he was assigned to the kitchen and garden crew. The dynamic experiences encouraged a farm-to-table mindset and once he realized he could turn life into cuisine, “I was hooked.”

“When I was in the garden, that’s where I really learned to love to cook what was grown,” Mooney explained. “I didn’t have that story of ‘Oh, I remember cooking in the kitchen with grandma.’ I grew up on Hot Pockets and that kind of stuff.”

He learned the art of working with what you have. His favorite technique is to pickle several leftover vegetables and finding a way to elevate the meal with them. That’s one tactic he implements at White Rhino Coffee + Kitchen.

Paul Ecker, who served as the executive director for the past 37 years, immediately recalled Mooney by his name. Due to privacy, Ecker was not able to disclose the progress Mooney made but explained the men would till the soil to plant the seeds to harvest. The objective was to get the men to develop pride and realize their purpose.

“The students — as we call our residents — have to be determined hour after hour,” Ecker stressed. “They are going to function in the environment that Adult Teen Challenge has that is not a lock-up place or medicating recovery center.”

“It’s not an easy path,” he added.

POST RECOVERY

Once Mooney left the rehab a year and a half later, he entered a discipleship program in Temple. He worked in the dish pit at a couple of restaurants in and around town and picked the minds of established chefs in town that he asked the critical question to, “Should I go to culinary school?”

He decided to expand his talents and shadowed two chefs, and one had even worked under Thomas Keller, an American chef, restaurateur and cookbook writer. Mooney worked in a small southern, somewhat bistro where he learned the importance of standards, the usage of fresh ingredients and to plate food to perfection.

“It’s super stressful, but it makes you better,” Mooney emphasized.

He recognized Corey Hamilton at Megg’s Café who helped him develop his own unique pallet and embrace creativity. He also worked at a family owned restaurant, The Gin at Nolan Creek, in Belton. While in Belton he also volunteered for a homeless ministry called Feed My Sheep and was able to cook food and make preservatives for the local homeless community.

He agreed the experience was humbling and was “another way for me to use something that I love to do to really treat people well with food because a lot of the times they get scraps or leftover food a lot of the time. It’s nice to give them a meal.”

Mooney disclosed that he had never slept on the street before but did float house-to-house at one point in his life.

Mooney left Belton when his wife, Denise, was pregnant with their daughter, Claira Jo who is now 5 years old. They moved to Denton to get closer to family and Mooney took a job at a mechanic shop. Even though he wasn’t in the restaurant business, he was able to understand the business aspects of inventory, purchasing, excel spreadsheets and budgets. He also honed in his skills in baking and other cooking techniques.

He suggested any home cook read “The Flavor Bible,” which is an encyclopedia for flavors.

WHITE RHINO

Before he scored the job with White Rhino, he worked at CBD Provisions, an upscale restaurant at The Joule Hotel in Dallas. When he applied for the position at White Rhino, he was in between that and an opportunity to help run a Teen Challenge in Indiana. It was John Stout, the chair of the Homeless Coalition in Ellis County, who presented the local chef opportunity to him.

“By the end of the night I was talking to Chris Parvin, and he shared what he was looking for, and I cooked a four-course taster for him, and we shared our visions — they were so close," Mooney said.

White Rhino Coffee owner Chris Parvin described Mooney as a dynamic, talented and inspirational chef who is fearless in the kitchen. Parvin also expressed thankfulness that Mooney took that brave step toward becoming a chef 10 years ago through a recovery program.

“At White Rhino Coffee, we believe that we are all children of God and that everyone deserves to be treated with respect," Parvin said. "Casey’s story, like many others who have battled addiction, is one of courage, perseverance, and success. He didn’t run from adversity, but rather faced it head-on."

After he explained his life and how everything indeed happened for a reason he admitted that he would not change anything.

“People always ask if you could go back and change it, would you? And, that’s a hard question to answer because I guess you’d want to go back because you hurt your family and all these other people, but at the same time, this made me who I am.”

He advised others who are in the shoes he once wore to learn from experiences and grow from it and do not let it define a person; and most importantly that everyone has a purpose.

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Ashley Ford | @aford_news | 469-517-1450