Nonno’s Cajun Cuisine serves up comfort food and a second chance
Nonno’s Cajun Cuisine & Pastries on Claiborne Avenue in the Seventh Ward serves homestyle comfort food. Owner Shermond Esteen is using his restaurant as a force for good, a safe place that welcomes other ex-inmates trying to make their way in a post-prison world.
In Louisiana, Black people account for 33 percent of the state’s residents, but make up 52 percent of people in jail and 67 percent of people in prison, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. And the numbers are even worse in New Orleans. Although Black males between the ages of 15 and 84 represent only 26 percent of the city’s population, in 2017, they represented 81 percent of people in jail. These numbers tell the story — Black communities are disproportionately impacted by the many effects of incarceration.
Shermond Esteen doesn’t need statistics to tell him that – he’s lived it. Esteen, an Avondale native who grew up in Algiers, was sentenced to 33 years for possession of five ounces of marijuana. He was taken to Angola directly from the trial on August 5, 1999, served eight years then transferred to Rayburn, Louisiana for another eight. Because of his cooking and baking skills, he was transferred to Plaquemines Correctional Facility, where he fed 600 inmates and prepared food for area seniors, one of the prison’s for-profit contracts.
Because of his exemplary behavior, Esteen was paroled as part of a “20/45 program” – “You had to have served 20 years and be 45 years old,” he explained. He came home to his parents’ place in Algiers on Aug. 5, 2019, with one goal in mind: Open his own restaurant.
Nonno’s Cajun Cuisine & Pasteries
He did that in June, opening Nonno’s Cajun Cuisine & Pastries on Claiborne Avenue in the Seventh Ward. Beyond serving homestyle comfort food and staying afloat during a pandemic, Esteen is using his restaurant as a force for good, a safe place that welcomes other ex-inmates trying to make their way in a post-prison world.
Esteen has a simple philosophy.
“Prison can either make you bitter or better,” he said. “I chose better. I never gave up on me.”
Quick to smile and offer a listening ear, Esteen radiates the kind of zen calm usually associated with a yoga-honed life coach. Working closing with Odyssey House, a local treatment center and The First 72+, which helps ex-offenders navigate the outside world, he offers work, words of encouragement and respect. “These are good people – they just need a chance,” he said.
Meet three people you might see at Nonno’s, either going about the business of doing their job or stopping by for a recharge. Their stories go beyond statistics to keep it real.
Like his first cousin Shermond, John Esteen, 52, grew up in a middle class neighborhood and went to Catholic school. He remembers the transfer from De La Salle High School to L.W. Higgins as a turning point, and not in a good way. He lost his football scholarship, his grades slipped and couldn’t qualify to get into Nichols State. The National Guard seemed like a good option until he was deployed as a diesel mechanic into a combat zone in the Persian Gulf War. “There were bombs and sirens going off constantly. I didn’t know if I was going to make it.”
A year later he was home, with a full-blown case of PTSD. “My family saw a big change in me,” he recalled. Esteen tried college again without success, couldn’t hold a job. “I got tired. I had friends in the drug game and called them.” He started selling and got popped for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. Esteen served 42 months at the federal pen in Pensacola.
After getting out, his marriage fell apart, he started dealing and was arrested again with four counts of possession. The sentence? One hundred and fifty years in Angola. “ I met guys who were out after 20 years on murder charges so I kept fighting.” He learned the law, graduated from the prison’s bible college and horticulture program. Finally, after taking his case to the state Supreme Court, Esteen was released March 12, 2019, after serving 20 years. His story was aired on Dateline.
Now, his dream is to grow his nonprofit, E&E Second Wind, which aims to lower the recidivism rate and help past offenders transition into society. He uses former convicts to cut grass for his landscaping business, offering free service to the elderly and underserved. “A guy that was a convicted felon and is now home, he’s learned his lesson. All they need is a chance in life. I firmly believe that love has the power to change things.”
The first time Val Baleria was arrested for possession of cocaine, her college education at Grambling State University worked against her. “It was in Jefferson Parish right after Katrina. I literally had crumbs, residue on me,” recalled the 55-year-old Avondale native. “The judge saw I was a college graduate and said I should know better. She made an example of me and gave me five years.” She served three at the Louisiana Correctional Facility for Women in St. Gabriel.
Baleria, 55, has struggled on and off again with addiction. Now more than 100 days sober, she went through treatment at Odyssey House and is living in a Treme group home with other recovering addicts. “I wasn’t ready to jump back into that same environment I was in,” she said. Esteen Jr. hired her to wait tables at Nonno’s, which she does with a smile and capable grace.
“I’d get my act together for a minute, get a job, get settled – then fall right back into it,” she recalled. Every time she started using, there’d be another arrest, another stint in jail. When Baleria racked up seven felonies in three months, she was looking at 20 years or drug court, a voluntary deferred sentence program dedicated to the intervention, treatment and recovery of non-violent offenders.
“It was an 18-month program but it took me five years to get my s— together,” Baleria said. She stayed clean for six years until 2020 when she relapsed again, this time at her job. “I was doing too much too fast. I didn’t take the time to work on my recovery, to work on me. Drugs become a coping mechanism.”
Baleria is hopeful. She works her program every day now, sees her kids and grandchildren, goes to therapy. “Adam Rievas is my counselor from Odyssey House, without him I’d be dead. He doesn’t let me get away with anything.”
What would she say to a woman coming out of jail, somebody like her? “Keep moving forward. You can’t drive a car looking in the rearview mirror – you’re going to have a wreck. If you believe in God, pray fervently every day. Get a group support system and a sponsor. And go to every ‘A’ meeting you can think of AA, NA, CA. What you’re feeling, somebody else is feeling the same thing. You aren’t alone.”
John Esteen’s sister Sonya McShane got involved with selling drugs with her brothers.
Newly divorced at the time, with three young daughters, she was struggling to get food on the table. “I wasn’t using. I figured it was worth the risk for the easy money,” recalled McShane, 51.
When she and her brothers were arrested in 1998, she was charged with conspiracy to possess and distribute. “I got slammed because I wouldn’t talk against my brothers,” she said. She was sentenced to 20 years and did 10.
When she got out in October 2010, nobody wanted to hire a convicted felon. She wound up going to a parish far from home that didn’t have a mandatory background check and worked at a gas station. She worked at a series of customer service jobs from home under her daughter’s name.
McShane got a good job in March as a bookkeeper with Intuit and works from home. “I was honest with them and they hired me. They’re a great company – my manager raves about me. I’m proud of my work.”
“I was bitter and angry but I’ve finally made peace with a lot of it,” she said. “Prison was rough. I regret that my kids grew up without me. I got the maximum sentence for a first-time offender. If I was a white person, I wouldn’t have got as many years, that’s for sure.”
As for Esteen, he has his own hopes and dreams. Prison is behind him, ahead he sees a lot of hard work moving him in the right direction.
“My hope is to really grow this business, to be able to franchise and add other locations,” he said. “I’d love to use the business as a way to be able to help people to learn how to cook and bake, to better themselves.”
His aim, to create a comfortable space for friends and families to come together, seems already in reach. Esteen Jr. saved up the money to apply for a beer and wine liquor license, sure to be another draw in the coming weeks.
“I have a lot of plans,” he said, flashing that slow smile that by itself speaks volumes.