Prison Threatened to Ruin His Life, But Now, He’s a Famous Chef

by Jack Smith

Jail time doesn’t end once your sentence is up; a criminal record can plague a person for years, ruining job opportunities and pushing them back into the same environment they are desperately trying to get out of. Raymond Li was desperate for a new start after spending time in Florida State Prison for drug distribution, but no one could see beyond his past.

That is until one kitchen gave him a job in the back. From a gang member to a restauranteur, Raymond Li’s story is an inspiring testament that our pasts do not define us unless we let them.

Troubled Origins

Li grew up in a multi-ethnic household; his Chinese, Columbian and Cuban roots introduced him to many kitchen staples that were simple put exotic in an American landscape; as a child, he prepared simple dishes for his younger brother while his parents worked long hours to keep a roof over their heads.

Unfortunately, there was not enough money to go around, and the family fell on hard times. To make ends meet, Raymond Li looked for any opportunity he could to get money, and he started selling Xanax and marijuana. He eventually fell into a gang, and soon, he was running jobs transporting cocaine.

Li recalls one altercation that would change his life; after having a gun pointed at his throat, Li sought revenge on someone by driving past their house and shooting 11 shots onto the street. Thankfully, no one was injured, but the next morning, Li’s home was surrounded by police.

He was sentenced to a year in Florida State Prison, where he spent most of his time cooking in his cell. Options were limited, and most of his recipes were what the prisoners called “gulas” – stews made commissary ingredients like ramen noodles and corn chips.

A New Start

After his release, Raymond Li was desperate to find work. He applied everywhere he could think of, but no one would give the former felon a chance. His criminal record stopped him from getting hired at dry cleaners, grocery stores and anywhere in between. Li was desperate for employment; his mother was sick with liver disease, and he spent a lot of time traveling back to Columbia to care for her.

His passion for cooking was reignited in Columbia after taking a side job for a family friend’s business. He eventually got a gig as a line cook, which he admits was due to the fact most low-paying kitchen jobs don’t require background checks.

Soon, Li’s passion for cooking inspired him to apply for culinary school. In 2016, he graduated from Le Cordon Bleu in Miami, and he soon started taking more jobs to diversify his expertise; he spent two months working in Paris, a year in San Francisco and now, he is the executive chef at Palmar, a Chinese restaurant in Miami’s Wynwood Arts District.

A Bright Future

Now, Li is planning to open his own restaurant in 2020. He says it’s difficult to leave Palmar, but he’s excited about what’s on the horizon. Li’s own restaurant will make fine Asain cuisine more approachable. In between his own restaurant design, he’ll also be helping open another restaurant in D.C., Columbia and Miami, where his 1-year-old son lives.

He knows that this is only the beginning, and he hopes that his current lifestyle influences his own son to realize that there is a future for him no matter where his passions lie.

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