Joe Cates
Joe Cates. “I’ve always been curious. I’ve always wanted to understand things better and there’s no better way to do that than to teach others.” (Photo by mx.bex, courtesy of Joe Cates)

Starting over: Joe Cates’ journey from chef to professor

Cates spent the first part of his professional life as a chef and restauranteur before a stint in rehab helped put him on a different path.

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Editor’s note: “Starting over” is a VCU News series about Virginia Commonwealth University students, graduates, faculty and staff who have boldly chosen to change something in their lives — whether a new profession, area of study or something else entirely.

Joe Cates’ life took a healthy turn after completing rehab in 2003 for issues with addiction. Prior to his admission, Cates was living the “band and chef life,” he said, but not his best life. 

He credits his admittance to rehab to friends and family for holding an intervention and his former partner for finding a program that would allow him to bring his guitar. His 2002 master’s degree in poetry from the creative writing program in VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences also played a part, earning him a scholarship for the 90-day residential program.

“It played a role in getting me the help I needed. The program was for professionals and one of the requirements was an advanced degree,” he said. “It got me in the door.” 

As a child growing up in the Chicago suburbs in a single-parent household, Cates was tasked at an early age with cooking the family meal. He began working as a short order cook when he was 18, moving his way up through the ranks of the restaurant industry to head chef. He used the money he earned to put himself through college, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing from Bowling Green State University in 1997. 

After college, he continued working in the restaurant industry and playing professionally in bands. After working as head chef at The Lotus Cardroom and Cafe in Portland, Oregon, he moved to Richmond in 1999 to pursue a master’s degree at VCU.

“I worked a lot of restaurant jobs while I was attending graduate school,” he said. “After I graduated in 2002, I worked as an adjunct professor at VCU teaching English. I was also working as a sous chef at Main Street Brewery.”

After rehab, Cates, who is now an assistant professor in the VCU Department of Focused Inquiry in University College, did outreach for Alcoholics Anonymous before directing a program at Monacan High School in Chesterfield County for students at risk of dropping out of school. He won the Student Role Model award in 2005 for his work. He also did food-related writing for Style, Richmond Magazine and Virginia Living, winning a Virginia Press Association award for his critical writing.

In 2007, he learned about the Focused Inquiry program and saw it as an opportunity to return to VCU. The program offers small, seminar-style classes for first- and second-year students as part of the core curriculum. The faculty strives to foster curiosity about the world at large through inquiry-based, community-engaged and experiential learning.

“I found my way back to teaching and service learning after getting involved with the recovery community,” he said. 

Cates is a Rams in Recovery ally, a program sponsored by VCU Recreation and Well-Being. In addition to teaching writing and critical problem solving, he also teaches a “Food for Thought” service-learning course. His classes are partnering with Carver Elementary School on their Nino Garden project and Fairfield Middle School on their Cornerstone Community Farm project. He also continues to write poems and teaches an introduction to poetry workshop at VCU. 

Throughout his life, Cates has had one common thread in all of his undertakings: He has always been interested in learning more and getting better at his craft.

“It’s all driven by me wanting to learn more and asking questions and figuring out those problems,” he said. “I’ve always been curious. I’ve always wanted to understand things better and there’s no better way to do that than to teach others.”

His tip to anyone thinking about changing their life? “Stay curious, seek the help you need, and follow your bliss.”