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People in recovery find the recipe for a fresh start in cooking career training

December 18, 2015 at 6:30 PM EDT
Blocks from the White House, DC Central Kitchen is the nation's largest community kitchen, putting out 5,000 meals a day to homeless shelters, schools, halfway houses and other nonprofits. But the kitchen's other output is training men and women who are working to turn their lives around with careers in the culinary arts. Jeffrey Brown reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As the holidays approach, it is a time of the year when many are more focused on trying to help those in need. We have a look at a program that helps those who have fallen on hard times learn new skills and find jobs.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

WOMAN: This is where rubber meets the road, when you’re gonna learn about management and how to take care of your kitchen.

JEFFREY BROWN: Morning class work at a well-established if unlikely culinary school in the nation’s capital; the students, mere weeks from graduation.

WOMAN: So, who can give me the first principle of a hazard analysis critical control point?

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s new territory for most of them. Some are recently homeless, others recovering from drug and alcohol addiction, newly released from prison or chronically unemployed.

Located in the basement of a large homeless shelter just blocks from the White House and U.S. Capitol, D.C. Central Kitchen is the nation’s largest community kitchen. Its full-time professional staff, helped out by a steady stream of volunteers, puts out 5,000 meals a day, which are sent to homeless shelters, schools, half-way houses and other nonprofits in the area.

Much of the kitchen’s output is prepared from donated ingredients — produce, canned goods, meat and fish that local restaurants and food retailers would otherwise throw away.

MIKE CURTIN, CEO, DC Central Kitchen: We do so many things, all of which, however, are focused on and around the idea that waste is wrong. And that waste could be —

JEFFREY BROWN: Waste is wrong?

MIKE CURTIN: Waste is wrong.

As a nation, almost 40 percent of the food that we produce every day goes in the garbage. And yet, people are hungry. There’s something really, really wrong with that.

JEFFREY BROWN: For D.C. Central Kitchen CEO Mike Curtin, reversing food waste is just half the kitchen’s two-pronged mission.

MIKE CURTIN: And while we’re doing that, we’re training men and women who are coming out of incarceration, battling addiction, surviving abuse, homelessness and unemployment for jobs in this hospitality business. We’re trying to bring these two things together in a way that’s going to create positive economic growth and opportunity for everyone.

WOMAN: It’s better that we start from here, because if we try to pile this way, we’re going to get tired because we’re pushing all of this —

JEFFREY BROWN: That means the culinary program and its students are deeply embedded in the kitchen’s daily activities. It can be demanding, even a little intimidating at times.

MAN: Say “thank you, chef,” for what?

WOMAN: Thank you, chef, for straightening out my life.

MAN: Any time.

JEFFREY BROWN: There is a kind of tough-love at work here, and often, a bond of shared experience.

You know what this is like.

MARIANNE ALI, Director, Culinary Job Training Program: Oh, absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell me what you came from.

MARIANNE ALI: I had a 20-year rough bout with heroin.

JEFFREY BROWN: Marianne Ali is director of the culinary training program.

MARIANNE ALI: I always say crack saved my life, because if it wasn’t, I could have probably been a heroin addict for longer. But crack takes you down so fast, and I was at the bottom of rock bottom.

JEFFREY BROWN: She eventually got clean, went to culinary school, then got a job with D.C. Central Kitchen.

What did you think you could bring to it?

MARIANNE ALI: I knew that I could serve as an example, you know, hopefully; that people would look at me and say, “If she did it, then perhaps there’s a chance,” because recovery is all, it’s a lot about hope.

JEFFREY BROWN: But making a new start takes more than knife skills and hope. Many of the changes required of these students are personal and take place on the inside.

MARIANNE ALI: How do I deal with my anger? How do I deal with somebody who is an authority? How do I deal with juggling, having to go see my P.O. and being here on time and doing what I need to do — it’s a lot to have to balance.

JEFFREY BROWN: Students Tamyra Hill and Terrell Nicholson agree. She is a mother of three who’s struggled to find work in recent years.

TAMYRA HILL, Culinary Student: For me, the hardest part is just being outside the classroom and finding time to study. Like I said, I have children; I have to help them with their homework, and then after they are in bed I have to take the time to study for myself. So, for me, that has been my — I won’t say a struggle, but it has been the part I have to constantly work on.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nicholson was released from prison not long before he came to the program.

TERRELL NICHOLSON, Culinary Student: I never had a problem with getting a job; it was keeping it that I had a problem with because I was going interview and get a job, and I would work. But I would allow other influences to keep me from staying focused.

JEFFREY BROWN: Teaching chefs Daniela Hurtado and Anand Shantam see the challenges some of their students face, trying to move from one way of life to another.

ANAND SHANTAM, Chef Instructor: If you’ve got someone who’s been unemployed, been suffering from addiction. It’s hard to come into a learning situation where they now have to get disciplined, be on time, take constructive feedback and not see it as criticism, but see it as an opportunity to grow.

DANIELA HURTADO, Chef Instructor: Having the right attitude. People will bump into you yes, the right attitude. People will bump into you, and sometimes you are defensive. And from the environment that they are coming from, sometimes it’s kind of harsh. So, it’s not personal; those are some of the challenges that we try to deal with here.

JEFFREY BROWN: The culinary training program runs 14 weeks — including a four-week internship in local restaurants and three weeks of guided job-search — and it boasts a stunning 80 percent graduation rate.

Still, not everyone makes it.

MIKE CURTIN: We might find that they’re not quite ready. They haven’t hit a place in their life where they see this as a best path to take. Addiction is a brutal mistress, and sometimes, it takes longer for some people to work their way out of it than others.

JEFFREY BROWN: The students we talked to felt they were beginning to find their feet, and they credited the kitchen.

NATHANIEL TROXLER, Culinary Student: I have three kids, so I want to be the father figure for them so they won’t chase the same things I went through in my life.

LANDRELL JORDAN, Culinary Student: Coming in here taught me how to get into the roots of where my anger is coming from; the pain, it taught me how to deal with it out, as you talk about, get it out, feel better about myself, you know? And here I am now, I’m doing something positive, something that I love.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think is the key to making it work? Why does it work?

MIKE CURTIN: Because we meet people where they are. We’re really not here to judge what people have done, or where they’ve been, or the decisions they’ve made. We’re here to talk about the future and to take what people have innately and give that a little context and say this is what you can do. If you work hard, if you commit yourself, if you dedicate yourself to this, you can be successful.

JEFFREY BROWN: And with 90 percent of the kitchen’s students finding jobs upon graduation, that formula seems to be working.

From downtown Washington, D.C., I’m Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.