Chef Will Hall moves down the line of students working in the kitchen. He coaches one on how to correctly dice an onion, instructs another on organizing ingredients, also known as "mise en place," corrects a third's pronunciation of pilaf.
Hall's students are enrolled in the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle's culinary job training program. If they succeed, these nine students, men and women, black and white, young and old, will graduate Friday as members of the program's 50th class.
The culinary training program started a dozen years ago to train the unemployed and underemployed for food service jobs. To date, 275 people have graduated from the program and the nonprofit group reports a 70 percent employment rate among the program's graduates.
One such graduate is Shea Johnson, 35, of Raleigh. The culinary training program turned this former drug dealer into a line cook at Outback Steakhouse. In 2007, a friend encouraged Johnson to help pick up foods donated to the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle. Johnson found himself volunteering regularly in the warehouse when he saw a flier for the culinary program and applied. Johnson credits the class for changing the course of his future.
"If it wasn't for this class and this program, I'd be selling drugs right now," Johnson says. "It's so much more than a culinary class. It's like a life-changing experience."
Graduates come back
Upon seeing Johnson, a graduate of the program, chef Terri Hutter gave him a hug.
Hutter, a former banquet chef at Durham's Washington Duke Inn, has been teaching the culinary training program for about 10 years. She says she loves "when the graduates come back to see the changes long-term."
Successful students are proof that the class teaches more than knife skills. It teaches them how to apply for a job and keep it.
To get into the class, students have to apply and provide two references. They are expected to show up on time, five days a week for 11 weeks. They not only have to listen, study and work hard in the kitchen, they are expected to have a good attitude. They have to pass drug tests.
In exchange, they receive a $50 weekly stipend, job coaching, life-skills classes, culinary training and the chance to become certified in food safety.
The latter is attractive to employers because an employee's certification improves their establishment's sanitation score.
On a recent Wednesday, most of the students are making rice pilaf and moussaka, a Greek dish of eggplant, béchamel sauce and ground lamb, although this version had ground beef.
As is often the case, the students are cooking something many of them have never eaten.
Moussaka is new to Mike Jackson, 37, of Raleigh who was laid off as a truck driver during the recession. "It will be interesting to try. I don't know about that eggplant," says Jackson, who hopes to continue his culinary education at Wake Tech Community College.
The class also has changed how some students cook at home.
"I'm starting to cook with garlic powder," says Tonya Avery, 23, of Raleigh who used to work tracking inventory at department stores. Long term, she hopes to become a pastry chef. Right now, she wants to land a job as a prep cook.
Another student, Robert Lucas, 31, of Wendell, says he has stopped cooking so many fried foods. Instead, he tries to re-create the dishes he's learned in class for his family. Lucas recently got out of prison and his caseworker suggested enrolling in the class.
As a father of three children, Lucas says he enrolled in the class for one reason: "I want a better life."
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