|March 23, 2015 • VOL. 53, NO. 6 • Oakland, CA|
| Kitchen of Champions serves up lunch, jobs and a heap of hope
The perfectly cooked omelet, stuffed not only with sautéed vegetables, but generous bits of bacon, is the first one ever made by one of the dozen chefs in training. Just a day earlier, the students in the Kitchen of Champions program at St. Vincent de Paul of Alameda County had an offsite cooking lesson in Berkeley, where the subject was eggs.
The Kitchen on Champions, founded in 2007, is a boot camp for aspiring culinary workers. For 12 weeks, they will learn skills, such as knife work and how to communicate. Some participants are looking for a second chance, or a third or a fourth. Some don't have homes to go home to, or are estranged from families. Some had jobs that in the last economy that went poof.
But by abiding by the golden contract on their hefty binders being on time, arriving ready to work and putting in a full day's work they will learn a way to make a living. There are bus passes available to help with that. No one's going to make it on the $10-a-day stipend.
They will cook for the 800 guests who have lunch in the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Room five days a week. They will sit down, however briefly, in their small staff dining room to eat lunch before embarking on an afternoon of classwork. For those who make it to the end of the 12 weeks, there will be a certificate and a set of knifes, and if all goes extremely well a job.
Even as those breakfasts are being prepared individually, the huge task of preparing to feed the daily 800 meals is well under way.
On today's menu: roasted chicken, rigatoni, braised greens, salad and an assortment of donated bakery goods, including vast quantities of pastel-iced cupcakes. Much of the food for the dining room is donated. The chef decides how it will be used.
The trainees follow orders. Myishia Robertson, of omelet success a couple of hours earlier, stands at a triple sink, spraying water over container after container of chicken parts. The hottest job in the house belongs to Eucharia Brown. Coached by Ryan Uyehara, production chef instructor, she learns the basics of getting grill marks on chicken.
But this is tomorrow's meal. "We don't have enough time to start from scratch every day," Uyehara said.
Anthony Quinn is working on "the big rig," he said with a smile as he stirred the pasta pot. At 61, the former preschool teacher is looking at the culinary world as his second career. Helping the new crew is Marie Gaiter, a graduate of the previous class who dropped by on her birthday, to volunteer. "I got so much out of it," she said. "Our class, we have a really tight bond. Even now."
In the kitchen, the self-described "mama of the group" dished up endearments as easily as technique. Her advice is: "Apply yourself. Each one, teach one." Her hope, in five years, is to open a soup and sandwich place. "It will always have something different on Fridays," she said.
After lunch, and the dishroom volunteers have completed their daunting task of washing up after 800 guests, the second part of the day begins.
Students gather around the work stations. It's Pork Week.
Peter Callis, program chef instructor, gives them the rundown of the dishes they will prepare: pork belly, brined pork tenderloin, carnitas and pork rillettes (which will require about a bottle of olive oil apiece).
This is no time to be tired. That's four dishes, and four sides, that need to be prepped.
Part of the plan is to get the crew accustomed to a full eight-hour shift. They finish with 15 minutes to spare.
Champions, inside and out
Nic Ming is among the Kitchen of Champions' success stories. After completing the program in 2011, she worked in leading-edge Oakland restaurants before becoming workforce development manager for St. Vincent de Paul of Alameda County.
Ming, who grew up in Jamaica, found the Bay Area "the perfect place to restructure and rebuild my life."
"People can be here for different reasons," she said, citing the need for help and support. Parents of young children, for example, need child care. Many students need help with housing and transportation. Education will be a factor: It will take reading skills, and math skills, to follow the recipes.
But this is not the easiest path they could be taking. "You have to be passionate about food service," she said. "It's hard work."
Her mother and aunt ran a restaurant. "I grew up around good food," she said.
In working with the culinary trainees, she said, "I enjoy finding out what makes people's eyes sparkle."
A lot of the work is repetitious. "You build knife skills by repetition," she said.
To be successful, Ming said, they will need both the hard skills and soft skills. Being "highly receptive to help makes the journey with them a lot more rewarding."
Her advice to them at the beginning: "We're starting a partnership. You're investing in yourself.
The graduates will be prepared to work in various jobs: catering, prep cook, line cook or dishwasher. One has gone to work for a maker of food service equipment.
Part of her role, she said, is "to build relationships with employers." Ming is constantly strengthening the program, fine-tuning it toward "what chefs and other employers are looking for."
The program trains about 100 year. "It would be nice to train twice as many," Ming said. "We provide chef coats, binders, and fees for food handling certification," she said. St. Vincent DePaul estimates the cost to train one Kitchen of Champions participant at $3,800.
Low-income people are eligible for the program, and Ming and others point out that sometimes more than one family member has completed the course, including six people from one family. "The family referrals are our best ambassadors," she said.
Ming herself likes the entrepreneurial aspect of food service; her next venture will be a Caribbean-fusion food truck with bold vibrant flavors.
Even the name says something: It's the Kitchen of Champions, after all. "A huge part is how people see themselves," Ming said, "being a champion of and for themselves."
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