CCS Kitchen Academy provides job skills

Friday, May. 17, 2024
CCS Kitchen Academy provides job skills Photo 1 of 2
Members of the Kitchen Academy prepare the meal for the March 6 catering event.
By Marie Mischel
Intermountain Catholic

SALT LAKE CITY — The plate of rice, chicken and carrots came garnished with parsley and a purple flower, as appealing to the eye and the taste buds as any presented in a fancy restaurant. However, that particular helping of pollo asada con aji verde was served in the Catholic Community Services’ Saint Vincent de Paul dining hall and prepared by members of the Kitchen Academy for a March 6 luncheon that showcased the skills they had learned during the 14-week program.

The St. Vincent’s Kitchen Academy is “designed to empower individuals impacted by employment barriers with essential culinary and life skills,” said Randy Chappell, CCS’ basic needs director, during the luncheon.

The students are recruited from “various channels, including drug treatment centers, AP&P [Utah Department of Corrections Adult Probation and Parole] agents and individuals facing homelessness,” he said. “Throughout the program, our students receive hands-on training from culinary professionals in our state-of-the-art kitchen, covering various skills from baking to grilling, and ensuring proficiency in safe food handling practices.”

The Kitchen Academy began in 2021; the most recent cohort of five students is the eighth to pass through. All 20 of the previous graduates have been placed in jobs with an average salary of $46,800, and all have housing, Chappell said.

The program includes not only culinary training but also life skills classes and a year of case management. In addition, after 10 weeks of training at St. Vincent de Paul dining hall, the students are placed in a two-week paid externship at a local restaurant.

The dishes for the March 6 luncheon were selected by Elvia Mendoza, a member of the most recent cohort. A native of Peru, Mendoza worked in a nursing home kitchen and a restaurant in her home country before coming to the United States last year, she said. For the menu, the appetizer was papa a la huancaina, the main dish was a choice of either the chicken or lomo saltado, and the dessert was tarta de queso with a choice of caramel or strawberry sauce.

Preparing Peruvian food was a new experience for Erik Mecham, one of Mendoza’s classmates, although from an early age he could make chili, spaghetti and meatloaf from scratch, he said. “I acquired an affinity for cooking and a love for cooking from an early age, watching my mom cook.”

Since he was young, one of his dreams has been to open his own restaurant, he said. “My goal is to try and take culinary arts in an artistical, tasty, healthy way.”

Autumn Walker, another of those in the cohort, also had been wanting to go into culinary arts since he was young, “and I found this place and I knew I could learn more than I wanted to learn,” he said.

While each of the three had their favorite class in the academy, they all agreed that the most difficult part was the exam for the Servsafe Food Handler certificate, on which they had to receive at least a 75 percent to pass.

Jeff Stant, the St. Vincent de Paul dining hall kitchen manager, said the class did very well on the exam, with one member receiving a 98 percent.

After the class passed the exam, they had classes on cooking basics such as baking, making sauces and knife skills; “after each we bring it back into the kitchen to work on that,” Stant said.

With the training and the food handling certification, the students are prepared to work as a sous chef, he said.

The kitchen academy has not only “really flipped my life around already, but I plan on taking it as far as I can,” Mecham said. Not more than six months ago he was living on the streets, but now he has an apartment, he said. With his first job after the academy, he plans to “gain all the experience I need to learn to run a kitchen as well as preparing safe food and delicious food” and then maybe work on a cruise ship or in a fancy restaurant while he continues to learn more cooking techniques, “because it’s a never-ending deal.”

He would recommend the academy to anyone who loves cooking, he said. “It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.”

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