Magazine Features

Opening Kitchen Doors

For the past two decades, the foodie culture (people who have an avid interest in the latest food fads) has taken over the world; everyone is searching for something healthier, sweeter or different than their routine meal.

“Those expanded palettes have taken a toll on the culinary industry,” says Timothy Tucker, a chef who has worked in upscale restaurants, culinary academies, and the Salvation Army in his native Louisville, Ky. “It has caused the price of culinary school to go up to the point it’s no longer affordable. People from lower–income backgrounds that want to follow this career cannot attain it anymore. The ones who do so end up in debt. This situation has created a shortage in cooks and chefs across the United States and in Europe.”

At the Salvation Army’s Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in Boston, Mass., adults from the Dorchester/Roxbury community who are eager to work in culinary arts have the chance to start their career.

The Kroc Center’s Culinary Arts Training Program is more than a simple cooking class. During the course, students become familiar with each other’s cuisine and cultures. They visit local markets and bakeries to learn about the food business. They memorize food terminology and practice safety standards needed to manage a professional kitchen. When the ten weeks are over, they will have the certification and experience necessary to succeed in the culinary field, which needs such graduates today.

Self–worth and net worth

In 2009, Timothy Tucker was executive chef at the Salvation Army’s Center of Hope Meal Service in Louisville, Ky. He cooked for as many as 400 low–income individuals and their families. He also created a ten–week course to teach a select group of them how to begin new careers in the kitchen.

“Just as The Salvation Army can feed someone, it can also teach someone to feed others. In doing so, the Army helps people to become independent. It’s a whole new approach to ministry,” says Tucker.

Salvation Army administrators in Boston asked Chef Tucker to come to Massachusetts to teach his course at the newly–built Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center. Today, after five years at the Boston Kroc, the Culinary Arts Training program averages a 90 percent graduation rate. Many of its graduates get high–paying jobs at local restaurants, casinos, and supermarket kitchens. Some are even able to secure positions before graduation day. The program also prepares students to take the ServSafe manager exam, a difficult but crucial test for anyone who wants to grow in the industry.

“Passing the ServSafe test is telling an employer that you are a professional who is able to monitor safety and sanitation requirements at a manager’s level,” explains Tucker. “Whether you want to run a restaurant kitchen, own your own food truck, or work in a school cafeteria, you need to pass the ServSafe exam.”

“We want our graduates to earn more than the minimum wage, because Boston is an expensive place to live. Realistically, if you’re trying to support a family here, and you’re not making around $20 an hour, you may be coming to a place like The Salvation Army for help,” says Tucker.

“Our classes have welcomed immigrants, single mothers, and people coming out of prison. No one works harder in our program than folks like them,” Tucker says. “They know that their path to success can be limited, and we know that restaurants are good places for entry and re–entry into the work force.”

“Our students see both their net worth and their self–worth increase,” says Tucker. “The heart of this program is a goal of The Salvation Army: to help people become self–sustainable.”

Ten weeks of opportunities

Britis Holguin had been in the country for only a few days when she applied for the ten–week course. She became one of 11 students in the Spring 2019 class. “This opportunity suddenly presented itself to me,” says Holguin, who had studied baking in the Dominican Republic.

“Being part of this program has been a blessing,” says Holguin. “After only a few months, I feel like every door is open for me.”

Arnulfo Imbrechts came to the U.S. from Colombia five years ago and went straight to work in restaurants. But despite having experience in preparing Middle Eastern and Japanese cuisine, he always saw other employees around him getting promoted. His bosses then asked him to train those same people promoted over him. Determined to get his certification, Imbrechts took a ten–week unpaid leave to attend the Boston Kroc Center’s culinary arts program.

“No chef had ever taught me like Chef Tucker did,” says Imbrechts. “Through him, I became a better cook. I understood the mechanics before, but here I learned the safety procedures and the textbook rules of cooking.”

“Those unpaid ten weeks are not lost. I will make that money up in no time!” says Imbrechts, smiling. He is considering a job offer to work in Encore Boston Harbor, a nearby luxury resort and casino.

Food trucks and Fenway

Johnnie Barnwell’s mother was the most talented cook he knew, but baking was his biggest challenge in the course.

“Baking was a different process than cooking, but that’s why I came to the Kroc; to learn to do what I love better,” says Barnwell, who hopes to one day have his own restaurant. Currently, he’s saving up to invest in a more mobile strategy for feeding people.

“I want to have a food truck waiting outside Boston nightclubs, ready for people who are hungry after a night of dancing. No more going to the house of pancakes after parties. I’m taking all their business!” says Barnwell, laughing.

Kamari Boseman, who is just 18–years–old, had the highest score of the class in the ServSafe test, and will work for Whole Foods after graduation. “With this job, I can keep expanding my knowledge of what I learned under Chef Tucker,” says Boseman.

Before the program, the only food experience Sabastian Holden, also 18, had was a love of TV cooking shows and helping his mother in the kitchen.

“Now, my dream is to travel the world to meet great chefs like Chef Tucker, and work under them,” says Holden, who has found a job at Fenway Park’s VIP Pavilion Club, preparing meals such as lobster and filet mignon in one of the baseball stadium’s most luxurious boxes.

      “Chef Tucker showed us how to prepare that type of food; he gave me a head start,” remembers Holden. “The employers liked that they didn’t have to train me; all they had to do was give me a tour of Fenway, and then point me towards the kitchen.”

Family influences

Keyona Howard comes from a line of chefs, cooks, and caterers, but sees her certification from the program as a way to work behind the scenes of the food business. She now has a five–year plan for her career, which begins with working for the Wegman’s supermarket chain.

“Part of our training is learning how to market ourselves and our skills beyond the qualifications of the jobs we want,” says Howard. “I can cook, but now I want to be part of the business aspect of culinary arts.”

Jerome Brown hoped to one day play professional basketball. When a knee injury derailed his goal, he saw it as a sign from God to take him on a different path.

“I was raised by my grandmother, who was one of the greatest cooks in the neighborhood,” says Brown. “I have all her recipes saved in my brain. Now, with this career path, I also have the lessons and tools to bring her recipes to the world.”

From a young age, Davidson Debrosse, an immigrant from Haiti, watched his father impress others with his culinary skills.

“Guests thought my father was professionally trained because a man that knows how to cook is rare in Haitian culture,” says Debrosse, who says the culinary program helped him improve his own cutting and dicing skills. Though he’s now a personal chef, Debrosse hopes to one day work in Boston’s newest French restaurant. “French cuisine is my favorite, and I can already speak the language,” he says.

Blessings in the community

Kevin George is the only student of the Spring 2019 session with prior connections to The Salvation Army. An employee of the Boston South End Corps Community Center, he was offered the position of kitchen cook when the previous cook left.

“I did not have the training the last cook had,” says George, “but I wanted to improve my skills to better serve and move up in the job.”

George says he will return to the South End Corps with his certification. “I guess I could look for something bigger and new, but my roots are here with The Salvation Army. I can’t leave those people in South End; I love them!”

Jackeline Tennyson had a lot of practice cooking before she took the course. She enjoyed feeding her family and the needy at her local church.

“But I always cooked by eye, never measuring,” says Tennyson. “Here, I learned that it’s much different to cook for your friends or loved ones than for your business or your restaurant.”

“I want to come back and teach future students about Honduran food,” says Tennyson. “This program and these skills are blessings from God, and I want to share those blessings.”

Mastering our gifts

The graduation ceremony for the Spring 2019 Culinary Arts class began with Chris Sumner, chief operation executive for the Kroc Center, thanking the graduates’ families for entrusting their loved ones and their futures to The Salvation Army.

“The only way we change the world is if we are mastering the gifts God has given us. Today, we celebrate 11 graduates who are doing just that,” said Sumner.

Guests dined on food prepared and served by the graduates, including Jerome Brown’s grandmother’s BBQ ribs. Chef Tucker proudly introduced each of his students and shared a glimpse of the careers they had in front of them.

“This is bigger than just a cooking program. Here, we change lives, we increase paychecks, and we help our students reach the next level,” said Chef Tucker.

Joyce Leveston, general manager of the Hynes Convention Center in Boston, was the guest speaker at the graduation. She shared her own beginnings as a telephone operator in San Diego, Calif., to becoming the most sought–after woman of color in event production and management.

“Every time I took the next step in my career, it was because someone opened the door for me, and pulled me through,” Leveston said to the graduates. “Remember where you were and know where you are going. You all now have a responsibility to open the door and pull someone through it, just as you were pulled too.”

Leveston’s message resonated with graduate Andre Gomez. Andre, who owns a Portuguese restaurant, took the program to expand his own knowledge and be influenced by the students he learned alongside.

“From the first day up until graduation, I was revising and improving how I run my own business, thanks to this course,” says the Cape Verdean–born entrepreneur. He hopes to open his own kitchen doors to someone from the culinary program and pull them through.

“I’m going to come back, meet students, and say to Chef Tucker, ‘When these students graduate, send them to work for me. They’ve been trained by you, and they know what I know.’”

by Hugo Bravo

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