Program Trains Unemployed to Become Chefs

December 26, 2006 at 4:26 PM EDT

ELIZABETH BRACKETT, NewsHour Correspondent: He handles his sharp kitchen knife like a pro. But it’s only Jesse Harper’s third day as an intern in a high-end catering business in Chicago.

The internship is part of an innovative 12-week program developed by the Greater Chicago Food Depository to train unemployed or underemployed people to work in the food industry. Harper, who was out of a job when he began, says the program has changed his life.

JESSE HARPER, Student: It’s a life-altering situation, because what — I thought I knew how to cook. You know, I can cook at home. You can throw a meal together. But now I have skills. I feel like it’s a big difference.

It’s sort of like it’s a trade that they’re teaching me, as well as here, and it’s something that will last me forever and ever.

LISA GERSHENSON, Executive Chef Instructor: This takes practice, but what you’re going for is a real even dice.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Glorietta Jones hopes to get into the Community Kitchens Program. She’s trying out in the program’s sparkling industrial kitchen, under the watchful eye of executive chef instructor Lisa Gershenson. If Jones is accepted, she’s in for a tough 12 weeks.

LISA GERSHENSON: We start at 7:30 in the morning, and the earliest we finish is at 3:30 in the afternoon. And many of the people who participate in this program have never had to stick to a schedule like this before.

The point of this training is to help people get employed and stay employed. And these are the standards that an employer is going to apply.

The mission of Community Kitchens

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The program has produced strong results. Gershenson says 80 percent of the students make it through the program; 70 percent get jobs right after graduation. And of those, 60 percent are still employed a year later.

Those statistics are much better than most job-training programs for the unskilled. Why?

LISA GERSHENSON: I think it's the particular content of the skills that we're trying to teach that also bolster people, as well as set high requirements for them. And we eat together. You know, we cook together. We eat together. We feed other people.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The Community Kitchens Program prepares 14,000 meals a week for Chicago school kids. The red peppers Glorietta Jones is learning to chop will be in the salad served during after-school programs.

Last year, 1,000 students were involved in 30 similar chef training programs in food banks around the country. In 2004, America's Second Harvest, a national hunger relief network, found that 22 percent of those students were homeless, and 44 percent were on food stamps.

Chicago Food Depository Director Kate Maehr says the Community Kitchens Program is a part of the depository's core mission, which is to provide food to hungry people while striving to end hunger.

KATE MAEHR, Greater Chicago Food Depository: That striving to end hunger, that going deeper to sort of take people out of the circumstances where they would even need that bag of food, is so important. And that's what Community Kitchens does.

Internships provide experience

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: After nine weeks of intense training and coaching, the students are placed in a professional kitchen for a two-week internship. The chef and owner of J&L Catering, where Jesse Harper is interning, admits he was initially concerned about bringing in trainees.

KEVIN KELLY, J&L Catering: I was a little nervous at first. Sometimes it's a struggle. People aren't necessarily as experienced or maybe as energetic as you want or hope them to be.

But, overall, it's been a really good experience. It really does give people who might be down and out a second lease on life, you know, a real second effort.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Gwendolyn Fondren's internship is in quite a different setting. She's in a Catholic school, where she helps the kitchen staff of four prepare lunch for 420 hungry students every day.

Fondren hadn't worked outside her home in 30 years when she signed up for the Community Kitchens course. She says there were times when she never thought she would get through it.

GWENDOLYN FONDREN, Student: About the third week, and my friends wouldn't let me quit. They were like, "You're not going to give up. You've got to finish." Because at the third week, you're like, "Ugh." But I'm getting through it. I have fell in love with everybody there, as you can tell.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: After their two-week internships, the students came back to class and shared their experiences.

JESSE HARPER: We even got some feedback from some of the catering experiences, when they would go out and do these jobs, and the feedback was always a positive.

You know, "The appetizers were really great." You know, "The food was really -- the presentation was really nice." And to know that I was a part of that, you know, it really means a lot to me.

And that's part of the reason, the main reason why I came here to the Chicago Food Depository, to learn to do something a little bit different and to maybe go out there and make a difference in the world for feeding people. So I think it's been a wonderful experience.

Life after graduation

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The experience became even more wonderful when Harper was offered a job at the catering company.

JESSE HARPER: Trying to say goodbye to everybody, and they came back and said, "What are you saying goodbye for? You're coming back." So they said I did pretty good over there, and they want me to be a part of the family.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Nine others in Harper's class were also offered jobs where they interned. Back in the kitchen, the students had one more week of training before the highly anticipated graduation.

The 13 graduates proudly walked into the sound of applause from their families and friends.

KATE MAEHR: Congratulations on your momentous achievements. All of us here feel that pride, and all of us today feel that same sense of anticipation as you go out and face that next set of opportunities. So good luck, and god speed.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Nineteen students had been enrolled in the program when it began 12 weeks earlier. For those picking up their certificates, it was a heady moment, only topped by watching friends and family lining up for the delicious meal the now skilled and confident class had prepared.