John Gargano graduated from New York University in May 2021 with a 3.91 GPA. Like a lot of recent graduates, he wasn’t sure what was in store, but he hoped to return to the restaurant industry, where he’d enjoyed the work.
There was one problem, though. “When you have a 15-year gap in your resume, it’s not always the easiest thing to explain,” John says now. That gap was because in 2004, John received a 30-year sentence for his part in a drug conspiracy. He served 13 years, and in 2016, was granted clemency by President Obama.
Following his release, John decided to pursue his bachelor’s degree. At first, he says, “I sought the degree as the validation. Little did I realize the education and the degree just empowered me to keep going, to keep wanting more and doing more. So I graduated with an associate’s degree from Hostos [Community College] with a 4.0 in business administration.” He then received a scholarship to New York University to pursue his bachelor’s.
While he was in school, he worked for a few years at Riverpark restaurant, where he made a lasting impact on customers and employees. In March 2020, he was offered a job at Locanda Verde in the TriBeCa neighborhood of Manhattan. A few weeks later, the whole city shut down—and the restaurant industry was among the hardest hit. John lost his job.
Then famed chef Tom Colicchio called. To John’s amazement, Chef Tom asked him to be the general manager of Craft, one of his New York City restaurants.
John says that the biggest misconception about incarcerated or formerly incarcerated individuals is that they don’t have the ability to change—that one mistake will define them for the rest of their lives. At 52, after spending more than a decade behind bars, John is able to look his elderly mother in the eye and see “that she knows that I’m a different person.”
When asked what freedom means to him, he says, “Opportunity. Not opportunity for me, but opportunity to pay it forward. If I don’t pay it forward, I never deserved it in the first place.” John doesn’t love talking about his time in prison, or the reasons he ended up there. In fact, he’d prefer to forget about it entirely, but he knows that by telling his story, it may shed light on issues that otherwise could go unnoticed.
“Telling my story will provide other people, later down the line, the opportunity to also maybe have their ‘Obama moment,’” he says.
Listen to John talk more about his journey here: