LOWELL – Chef Neftali Medina says he is looking forward to the biggest day of his career on Sept. 24 at the Phantom Gourmet Food Festival in Waltham.
Medina launched a catering business called Kitchen Animal a year ago, and he says it is going well. His specialty is Spanish and Puerto Rican dishes. He will be serving his own creation at the festival, which is associated with the well known local television program Phantom Gourmet.
Now 42, Medina’s start in life was not easy. He grew up in a housing project on Chelmsford Street where he was raised by his grandparents. His parents, he says, had little involvement in his life.
“By the time I was 14, I had a lot of anger and was on a downward spiral,” he says. “I got involved in street life with gangs and drugs.”
Medina’s downward spiral included two convictions for attempted murder and a five-year jail term. “I bounced around in the state’s prisons,” he says. Incarcerations included stays in the Shirley, Concord and Cedar Junction correctional institutions.
He began working in local restaurants after he left prison and discovered his love for cooking. He made the acquaintance of Lowell health inspector David Ouellette during that period.
Ouellette, now health department director in Dracut, brought Medina’s story to The Sun’s attention. Ouellette says, “Neftali’s a good friend whom I have helped with any questions or concerns over the years on his journey to become such a great chef.
“He has fought hard with lots of determination to be where he is today,” Ouellette adds.
In 2006, after release from prison, Medina met Jennifer Pender, the woman he would marry, albeit 15 years after they were introduced by her cousin. They began a romantic relationship in 2012 and married last year. They have a blended family, including 8 children and one grandchild.
Her family, especially her father David Pender, a now-retired Lowell police officer, weren’t happy “but now they love him to bits,” she says.
Medina says “Culinary saved my life.” And Jennifer Medina has kept him going.
She says she made it clear to him when they began their relationship, and ever since, “You can’t change for me. You have to change for yourself.”
Medina doesn’t plan to stop with the Phantom Gourmet festival. He’s hoping for a vendor table at the Lowell Folk Festival next summer and is waiting to hear more about that in January.