Culinary schools lift cooks out of welfare

    The popularity of cooking has given rise to a foodie culture that reveres star chefs. But underneath the glamour of cooking shows and book tours are hard-working kitchen staffs who sweat over hot stoves. For some, the kitchen is a way to get off welfare or overcome a checkered past.

    The popularity of cooking has given rise to a foodie culture that reveres star chefs. But underneath the glamour of cooking shows and book tours are hard-working kitchen staffs who sweat over hot stoves. For some, the kitchen is a way to get off welfare or overcome a checkered past.

    Listen:
    [audio: 090630pccook.mp3]

    Six years ago Chef Shawn Harris began teaching teenagers in a juvenile detention center near Camden to cook, training them for jobs. Last year he began an after-school program for young people in the neighborhood. He noticed similarities.

    Harris: No one has any work ethics anymore. Youth has no work ethic. It’s like they want everything, but not do anything for it.

    There aren’t very many cooking jobs to be had in Camden, only about 30 percent of Chef Shawn’s students get placed after the 14-week program. He finds that students outside detention are more eager for work, because in jail you get soft.

    Harris: You never starve in jail – they feed you. The whole reality you face in the world – you don’t have heat, there are no lights, your clothes sometimes are dirty, you don’t know where you’re next meal is coming from. You’re hungry to get something when you’re out.

    Regardless of personal motivation – and against popular belief – it’s hard to get a kitchen job if you’ve got a criminal record. Industrial kitchens and restaurant chains are often run by corporations. Greg DeShields of the Temple University Hospitality Management School says their policies are ironclad: no jailbirds.

    DeShields: Should there be a corporate mandate there’s drug screening or that a person could not be convicted of a felony, it would certainly limit a hotel or restaurant chain to make a hire, but an independent owner would have the prerogative to make the decision whether to give back to the community, or just to provide a person with an opportunity.

    Many cooking schools will not train students with a record because they’re difficult to place into jobs afterwards.

    At Philabundance Community Kitchen in North Philadelphia, Chef Linda Miles oversees students preparing chicken cacciatore.

    Miles: get cutting boards, get a knife, we’re going to do some cuts.

    This is a free, 12-week training program for low-income people. Some have a criminal past, most are on welfare, everyone is out of work. After 9 years as a loan clerk for a local bank, Martha Epps was laid off. She’s 58 years old, and she’s learning a new trade.

    Epps: My math has horrible, they helped me bring that up. My life skills course, job training – I’ve learned so much.

    Chef Linda says learning to quarter a chicken is only part of it.

    Miles: The biggest challenge is having them work as a team. It seems as if they want to all learn individually. The most effective culinarian works as part of a team because it takes a team to make a meal.

    During the first week of training the students never set foot in a kitchen. They learn how to conduct themselves professionally – to show up on time, to communicate with their bosses, to dress properly. Philabundance managers consult with employers who say they are not necessarily looking for someone who can flawlessly julliette a bell pepper, but rather who can show up to work on time, every time.

    In some regards, people in these workforce culinary programs are better fit for local programs than students who come out of more prestigious cooking schools.

    DeShields: You can cultivate that person to become an expediter, to possibly become a sous chef, and their aspiration can be within your organization…

    This is Greg DeShields from Temple University.

    DeShields: …but someone who comes out of a traditional school, just by their professional education they’re going to be geared to do something outside the scope of your organization.

    DeShields says people coming off welfare or out of jail often require family and social support groups in their neighborhood, so are less likely to hop to Atlantic City or New York to work in the latest trendy restaurant.

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