By Annie Sciacca
East Bay Times
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) A new culinary arts program hosted by the nonprofit “Loaves and Fishes”, hosts multi-week sessions to teach students skills in cooking and how to work in professional kitchens. The culinary program also educates students on workplace practices and job opportunities.
Shelby Bolton, a 17-year-old student at Vicente Martinez High School in Martinez, wants to be a chef. She plans to go to culinary school in the fall, but a few months ago, she said, she “didn’t even know how to cook an egg.”
Bolton is a recent graduate of a new culinary arts program hosted by nonprofit Loaves and Fishes of Contra Costa County, which provides meals and groceries to hungry people in the area. She is one of several students who have gone through the multi-week program to learn skills in cooking and in working in professional kitchens, as well as to learn about job opportunities and workplace practices.
The students in the program — around a dozen over two different sessions — all come from Vicente, a continuation high school in Martinez that is geared toward high school students who are at risk of not graduating.
According to Sally Van Slyke, who heads the culinary program, most of the students who come in have never cooked and are unfamiliar with the dishes she teaches them to make.
“But they’re highly trainable,” Van Slyke said, noting that she has taught the students basic culinary skills like using a set of knives and preparing vegetables and meat for cooking on a large scale, as well as workplace skills like interviewing well and etiquette for working alongside others in a kitchen.
Van Slyke also tries to expose students to what kinds of opportunities are available in the culinary world, from flexible catering jobs to restaurants to classes at culinary schools. She takes each group on a tour of Diablo Valley College’s culinary arts program.
Andie Anderson, 16, said the skills in the internship, as well as the requirement to have a food-handling certificate, helped her land a job at Martinez restaurant Beaver Creek Smokehouse, where she works in the kitchen. Besides the knife skills and other practical kitchen techniques she learned, she said she appreciates the chance to explore different career paths and schools, something she does not think she sees enough of in her regular classes.
Loaves and Fishes of Contra Costa County, which operates five dining rooms — in Martinez, Pittsburg, Bay Point, Antioch and Oakley — is perhaps best known for serving meals daily to those in need. It also operates a food pantry for needy families and partners with other nonprofits to host outreach events for resources like job training and other support.
The culinary training program is in line with that mission, said Carissa Crader, who formerly managed one of the Loaves and Fishes dining rooms and now assists Van Slyke with training the students.
Crader referenced an old proverb: Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.
The program, Crader said, provides the introduction to culinary skills for the students to work and, at least, cook for themselves, but it also fosters a feeling of support for the students who may not get that elsewhere.
“It’s the idea of community,” she said.
The program is a relatively new venture. Loaves and Fishes Executive Director David Gerson wanted to make use of the kitchen space that came with the building the nonprofit acquired on Ferry Street in Martinez a few years ago.
“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting to empower people by teaching them culinary skills?’ We’re going to have this kitchen, so let’s build it around it,” Gerson said.
He tapped Van Slyke, a longtime marketing executive and culinary entrepreneur — she started Lafayette-based catering company Wild Thyme Catering and Events — to lead the charge.
According to the students in the most recent program session, Gerson could not have picked a better leader to head the training. By the last day of training, all six girls were rushing around the kitchen, laughing with each other and teasing Van Slyke, while working diligently to prepare a meal for their families and teachers the following evening.
Having set up a menu of beef tenderloin, bruschetta, roast salmon and scalloped potatoes — the collective favorite dish — you wouldn’t know the girls were novices in the kitchen just a few weeks prior.
Each of them spoke about their group becoming “like a family,” with Van Slyke at the helm.
“Sally gets straight to it,” said Juliet Matthews, 16, of Van Slyke’s straightforward style. As fellow student Anderson put it, Van Slyke talks to them as adults, something all high school students crave.
Van Slyke said she encourages the students to strive for all sorts of opportunities after high school and is honest about what is needed to get there. She talks with catering and other culinary contacts to help open up job prospects for the students.
She knows that in the Bay Area, culinary opportunities abound, but the most professional, skilled workers are the most likely to succeed. That’s what she tries to impart to students.
Gerson said Loaves and Fishes is looking to expand the program. It is working with Rubicon, an East Bay nonprofit that works to break the cycle of poverty by providing job training and financial coaching, to offer a culinary job-training program to its adult clients. That program will likely begin in February and March, and will focus on helping people acquire the skills to obtain good restaurant jobs.
Not all the students in the high school program want to be a chef or work in a restaurant. Juliet Matthews said she wants to be a medical assistant, for example, while others spoke of teaching or working with special needs students.
For them, and even for those who do want to work in kitchens, a large part of the program is about imparting a certain confidence, both Van Slyke and Gerson said.
“It’s not just about culinary skills,” Gerson said. “It’s about learning that you can succeed.”