Stefan DeArmon was struggling to support his parents while living in a homeless shelter until his ambitious nature, a fateful meeting, a simple mistake and some really, really good cornbread changed his life forever.
DeArmon, a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard, took a leap of faith when he returned home to Charleston, South Carolina, to help his parents after retiring from the service. His father had been in and out of the hospital while his mother, who been diagnosed as being legally blind, was still cooking and running the household. DeArmon didn't have the funds to relocate or scrape up enough money to put towards getting a home, but he wanted to help his family at any cost.
"If you could put your pride aside, I can get you in the shelter," a veteran social worker told DeArmon. He then learned about One80 Place, a shelter that provides unique job opportunities for residents. "I said, 'Whatever it takes for me to get home to my parents,'" DeArmon told TODAY Food.
DeArmon told TODAY that although the shelter saved his life, being homeless was a struggle — one that inhibited productivity and the rest one needs to feel healthy and thrive. But One80 softened the harsh blow of homelessness with programs to foster success, one of which provided culinary training.
DeArmon, who grew up watching his mother and grandmother cook, also loved to prepare food. He enjoyed the program and heeded the advice of his instructor, Angie DuPree, when she recommended that he find a local chef to assist at the Charleston Wine + Food festival, which had recently started a partnership with One80 Place to give residents on-the-ground experience.
It was there that a chance meeting changed his life. DeArmon started volunteering for the station of a local barbecue restaurant called Smoke — a place where he had eaten before.
"He had his black chef coat and his white undershirt. And I said, 'Sir, you've got the spirit. I'm calling you 'the Reverend' and you're coming to work at Smoke,'" Smoke BBQ owner Roland Feldman recalled to TODAY.
DeArmon began working as a dishwasher and quickly worked his way up to preparing food. One day while he was preparing a batch of the restaurant's signature cornbread, DeArmon accidentally poured heavy cream into the batter instead of buttermilk. Feldman decided to have DeArmon bake it up and what ensued proved how wonderful a simple mistake can be.
"It came out a little bit higher, it was moist, golden brown. They passed it out and everyone loved it," DeArmon told TODAY.
The cornbread was so good, that it inspired Feldman to bring DeArmon on as a business partner. And so the Reverend Cornbread Co. was born.
This year, DeArmon will return to the Charleston Wine + Food festival to lead a baking class with Carrie Morey of Callie's Biscuits. To give back, he also teaches new students at One80's culinary program. Reverend Cornbread Co. now has its own food truck, which DeArmon and his friends from the shelter use to distribute fresh meals to the homeless several time a month.
"Without hope you don't have anything. One80 place gave me hope and an avenue because dealing what I had to with my parents, to do something that I really love, which is cooking, it was a relief, ya know," DeArmon told TODAY. "To see people get satisfaction from something that I've created is one of the best feelings ever ... I swell with pride just to see the smile on my mother's face. And it was a great feeling, a great feeling."