Birthdays weren’t regularly celebrated during my childhood. So you can imagine my excitement, when I walked into my pop’s apartment to be presented with Mickey D’s and a Carvel ice-cream cake. It was a full-size meal too, not my usual Happy Meal. Life couldn’t get any better at that moment. I remember my seventh birthday, sitting at the head of the table with my Quarter Pounder with Cheese like it was yesterday.

But my excitement quickly turned to confusion when Pops took the next moment to have a man-to-man conversation with my brother and me. He was moving to Puerto Rico. And I was crushed. Looking back, I see the significance of that Quarter Pounder—Pops was leaving us to be the men of the house.

My parents were married for 13 years, and many of the memories I have of them together involve arguing. But I know they loved and provided for us the best way they knew how, and I will always honor them for that.

My pops hustled on the streets of the Bronx. His lifestyle brought exposure to money, drugs, guns, and girls. But when he moved to Puerto Rico, he lost that fast, flashy lifestyle and ended up in poverty. My brother and I received quite a reality check when we visited him in those conditions.

My mother worked hard and did her best to protect us boys from negative influences. She worked a 9-to-5 job for the city, kept us busy in sports, and sent us to a private Catholic school. She made many sacrifices for our family.

At the age of 14, I got a job in a restaurant at the New York Botanical Gardens, selling hot dogs out of a hot-dog cart. I couldn’t believe how many people would pay $2 for a hot dog! I wanted in on that racket and decided to sell my own dogs out of that cart. It just so happened, I had a bit of the hustle in me, too.

I concocted a plan and had my homies throw packages of cheap hot dogs I had purchased over the Gardens’ fence. I then cooked those “dirty dogs” and sold them, keeping all the profits for myself. It didn’t take long, though, for the owner of the cart to notice that I was returning with the same inventory I’d left with each day.

Incredibly, he didn’t fire me or even accuse me of stealing; instead, he transferred me to the kitchen as a dishwasher.

That life-changing act of generosity gave me my first exposure to a commercial kitchen. There, I watched in amazement as the head chef orchestrated the food and beverage departments. I knew that one day I wanted to be a chef too.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but today, I can see how God used various people to help me come into His plan for my life. For example, God used Chef Tom to encourage me to go to culinary school, where I could develop my culinary gifts.

This career choice was difficult for my family to understand, as they had not been exposed to fine foods. Nonetheless, I went to culinary school, and many opportunities opened for me. Not long after, I began working at the NY Stock Exchange, where I was exposed to culinary influences from all over the world. I had certainly moved up from cooking those dirty dogs.

This all sounds great on the surface—an at-risk youth discovering his passion for the culinary arts and having positive life experiences. But what I haven’t told you about yet is the double life I was living.

The culinary world offered quite a party life behind the scenes, and I was drawn to it. Fame, money, glitz, glamor—everything I had seen my pops acquire when I was a kid was at my fingertips, and I reached for it greedily. The chef lifestyle required hard work and allowed me to party even harder. It was an empty life, to be sure.

My live-in girlfriend saw firsthand all the negativity I was surrounding myself with, and she left me. My heart was shattered, and I decided to leave New York. I quit my job, bought a map and a truck, and headed to the farthest city that looked interesting—San Diego! Again, God was directing my path, and I didn’t even know it.

My New York resume helped me land a head chef position at the Del Mar Racetrack. At just 19, I was in charge of 25 cooks. We prepared meals for thousands of people a day. My family meal, meaning the food we prepared for the employees alone, was for 400 people. After that job, I had the opportunity to represent the United States in the World Fair at Expo ’98 in Lisbon, Portugal. There, I had the position of Executive Sous Chef and fed up to 3,000 people a night.

You would think with all that success that I would be enjoying life. But I wasn’t. My life was empty. Even in those huge kitchens with all those people, I felt completely alone. I longed for family, for companionship, for someone to call me on the phone and simply ask, “How was your day?” But the phone never rang.

And then my brother called from New York. He’d been diagnosed with stomach cancer and needed me. I quit my job and moved back to the East Coast. I spent 13 months with him in hospice, helping him fight that terminal disease.

I was there in September 2001. I lost my best friend, Manny, a New York City firefighter, to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. And then I lost my brother.

I became so depressed that I didn’t care about the road of self-destruction I was on. Work, drugs, alcohol—they were all I knew.

It took hitting rock bottom for me to have my first real conversation with God.

I had grown up in the Catholic church, but all those years of hearing about God hadn’t helped me have a relationship with Him. I had gone through the motions of mass, communion, and prayer, but they meant nothing real to me. Now, with the loss of my friend, my brother, and the exhaustion of chef life, I needed more.

In desperation, I called out to God. It wasn’t a memorized prayer this time; it was a heartbreaking cry of, “Why, God? Why is my life the way it is? Why did my brother and my friend have to die? Why am I so lonely? Why am I stuck in this deadly cycle?” I asked God to help me, to bring my life into balance, and to get me out of the destructive work-and-party cycle I was in.

I didn’t hear an audible response, but He began answering my prayers.

Not long after that day, a woman came into my restaurant in Queens. I took one look at her, and knew she would some day be my wife. She was so beautiful—but she was also the pickiest customer I’d ever had! Instead of growing irritated with her finicky appetite, however, I found myself intrigued and excited to create new dishes for her.

One day her friend told her, “Christina, this guy likes you, and he is trying to impress you with all these special dishes. If you don’t go out with him, I will!”

Christina had recently lost her father and had been cautiously and prayerfully moving forward with new relationships. She took her friend’s advice and agreed to go out with me.

On our first date, God used Christina to challenge my faith. I took her to a fancy restaurant, but she wasn’t impressed. The first thing she asked was, “Do you believe in Jesus?”

I was like, “Uhh…kind of. I’m not sure.”

“It’s a yes or no question. Do you believe in Him, or not?”

I told her yes, and she said, “Okay, then come to church with me.”

It was shockingly different from the church experience I was accustomed to from my youth, but I liked Christina, so I kept going. I also liked what the pastor said about having a relationship with Jesus. He explained scripture and the Christian faith in ways I had never heard but could finally understand. I soaked in the Word of God and let it transform my mind. As I did, it filled my heart with peace. I was baptized in the Lord, and in Christ, I have found love, balance, and deliverance.

Four months into our relationship, I asked Christina to marry me. We went through marriage counseling with the pastor, where I learned about my responsibility as a husband to be the spiritual covering for my wife and future children. Since then, I have taken my role as the protector of the household seriously and have tried my best to follow the Lord’s leading.

A few years ago, the Lord led Christina and me and our three children to Central Florida. It wasn’t an easy transition, and we’ve often been discouraged. Despite the many attacks Satan has waged on us, however, God has been ever faithful.

He gave me the business plan for a new restaurant called Vida 365. He’s shown me how to use my culinary gifts for His glory. Today, our family works hard in our Central Florida restaurant to help people find physical healing through food. We take every opportunity to lead people to the One who can make them whole—Jesus. God has brought a fullness to my life that success and fame could never offer.

Maybe you’re stuck in a destructive, hopeless cycle. The enemy has robbed you of your joy and peace. People are all around you, but you feel alone.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Freedom and family are waiting for you in Jesus. Come to Him, questions and all. Move past religious routine and open your heart to Him. You’ll find the life you’ve always longed to have.