11/23/2011 03:04 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2011

Culinary Training Program Sets A New Course For Chicago's Unemployed, Underemployed

CHICAGO -- One by one on Monday, they approached the front of the room at the Center on Halsted in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood, glowing as they received a certificate of completion. They were graduating from the center's Silver Fork culinary arts and job readiness program, an intensive 12-week course catered to preparing the unemployed and underemployed to pursue, or restart, a career in the hospitality industry.

Some nine months ago, chef Dan Smith, former co-host of the Food Network's "Party Line With the Hearty Boys," took over the culinary arts program and overhauled the curriculum. Smith, who with his partner Steve McDonagh owns the Lakeview restaurant Hearty and an affiliated catering business, also taught the course once a week. He said the class gave him "hours of joy," thanks to the commitment displayed by the program's participants.

"They really had it together as a class, with the passion they brought in to learn and with the various experiences they had brought in," Smith said. "This was a group that was raring to go and really, really talented."

The 20 participants were selected from some 100 applicants who turned out to interview for the program in August. Given such overwhelming demand but restricted by the program's meager space inside the center, Smith noted, the selection process was difficult.

When asked what attracted him to the program, one participant named Billy, hired a month ago to work full-time at the Hard Rock Hotel downtown, reached in his pocket to pull out a paycheck. As of Monday's graduation, one-quarter of the graduates had already found full-time work.

Anthony, who had previously worked in telemarketing, and others said jobs in the hospitality industry interested them more than positions they had held in the past. Another participant said she planned on starting her own catering business with her new skills and certification.

To be eligible for the program, applicants needed be at least 18 years old and living in one of some 20 areas mainly on the city's South and West Sides. Though the Center on Halsted's services are targeted at LGBT Chicagoans, applicants didn't have to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender in order to qualify. Upon successful completion, participants received a onetime $350 stipend.

The latest graduating class ranged in age from 19 to 56 and were predominantly African American or Latino. The program boasted a 100 percent graduation rate, and all but one participant also passed the Illinois food service sanitation manager exam. The graduation rate of a comparable, albeit larger program in Seattle called FareStart hovers around 50 percent.

A clear highlight for several students was the autumn dining series, during which they prepared and served four-course meals to some 130 diners. The menus included such seasonal favorites as butternut squash ravioli with blue cheese, beef brisket and balsamic chicken.

Perhaps as important as the skills learned and job placements made, however, were the bonds formed between the students. One participant, a single mother, said that while she went through "some tough times" in recent months, the program served as a much-needed escape. Others said the course helped them feel confident and empowered in their skills.

"I would not have gotten through this without the camaraderie, devotion and commitment of all of you," another graduate said upon receiving her certificate.

With demand for new job skills not likely to dissipate anytime soon, Smith said he hoped the culinary arts program would continue to thrive. The next round of interviews takes place Jan. 5 and 10 from 1 to 4 p.m. at the center.

"Obviously there's a need for it. And culinary school is expensive, college is very expensive, and these are people who don't have the means to do something like that," Smith said.

For more information on the Silver Fork program, click here.