ST. PETERSBURG — Towan Rush navigates his wheelchair through the narrow kitchen effortlessly and focuses on shrimp sizzling in a pan. Don't ask him what he seasons the plump, tasty shellfish with because he'll just smile, revealing his braces, and tell you it's a secret.
His new restaurant, Rush Hour Chicken & Waffles, is a concept Rush developed before graduating from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Atlanta in 2011. It's in a former Quizno's in a strip mall at the intersection of 34th Street and 22nd Avenue S.
This new beginning for Rush, 40, is nine-tenths of a mile from Quincy Street, where a bullet exploded in his spine 12 years ago. It was the day before Mother's Day. He was taking a friend home around 10 p.m. when a gunman pulled up and fired into his 1994 Cadillac Seville. His friend fired back 12 times as the assailant sped away.
"I tried to drive myself to the hospital and I got a little bit down the road and the car started just drifting," Rush said. "I threw it into park and realized I couldn't feel my legs."
He spent two weeks in intensive care at Bayfront Medical Center, then six weeks in rehabilitation.
"At first I wanted to die. I was pulling the IVs out. I didn't want to try," he said. Rush credits the rehab department, his family and Friendship Missionary Baptist Church for getting him back in action, physically and mentally.
Now the wheelchair is a necessary appendage but not an encumbrance.
"I don't think of having a disability. I have upper-body strength and my mind, and I can will myself to do anything," he said.
His interest in food started with his first job at age 15 busing tables for Leverock's in St. Pete Beach. Rush was soon helping in the kitchen and worked there four years. But his knack for cooking wasn't strong enough to keep him out of trouble. During his late teens and early 20s, he had brushes with the police and drugs.
"I was running with the wrong crowd, being dumb and naive and making stupid choices," he said. "But I knew that was not where I wanted to go. I quit hanging around with those people."
By age 25 he had a wife and two kids. His family was the main impetus for steering his life in a better direction. Rush got back into the kitchen with a job at Carrabba's. He came in early and stayed late, working off the clock to become more adept at all seven positions on the line.
After he was shot at 28, Rush started a cleaning business and landed a contract with the Belleview Biltmore Resort in Belleair. The owners allowed him to use the commercial kitchen for his own catering business. He also had his own restaurants in St. Petersburg and Gulfport. The food was easy. The finances weren't.
"I realized I needed to go and get a degree," Rush said. "I knew it from the working side but didn't know the back-of-the-house management."
He set his sights on Le Cordon Bleu in Atlanta but first got a job at Macy's customer care call center in Clearwater. After three years he combined his savings, personal loans and a Pell Grant to pay the almost $40,000 tuition for the 2 1/2-year program.
"Towan is somebody who is clearly driven and had extraordinarily high professional standards for himself," said Glenn Mack, president of the Atlanta campus. "It was never about what Towan couldn't do. It was what he could do."
Rush helped form the first student government and was elected the school's first president.
He got the idea for chicken and waffles from the success of several restaurants in Atlanta. This sweet and salty combination, however, is perhaps best known in California, where Roscoe's House of Chicken & Waffles has been an L.A. institution since 1975. Celebrities from Redd Foxx and David Beckham to Jay Leno and President Barack Obama have licked their fingers there.
Though Rush's favorite food is Italian, that market is flooded in St. Petersburg. He thought Southern and soul food would be a good niche. Rush Hour's menu includes shrimp and grits, fried green tomatoes, squash casserole and brown sugar salmon.
"When you come in here everything is fresh,'' he said. "Nothing is pre-breaded."
Mike Harting, co-owner of the often-packed Bella Brava on Beach Drive NE, is impressed.
"It's fried chicken, and he put a spin on it," he said. "It's good food and a marketable concept. But I think his success is going to be based on his personality and his story and his grit."
The person who shot Rush was never arrested. It's hard not to think of that fateful night as he regularly passes Quincy Street.
"It still goes through my mind. But it's one of those things that's my past. I can't relive my past," he said. "I have these years going forward, so I've got to let go and let God take care of it."
And by the way, the restaurant is closed on Sundays.
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8785.