01/29/2013 06:03 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2013

Building Culinary Confidence

By Marianne Ali, Director of Culinary Job Training, D.C. Central Kitchen

A kitchen isn't an easy place to work. It's hot, loud, and stressful. Everyone is under intense pressure, and on top of that, they're all holding knives. DC Central Kitchen takes men and women who have been homeless, incarcerated, and addicted to drugs and throws them into this steaming pressure cooker. This might all sound crazy to you -- it certainly did to me when I landed a job here out of culinary school 15 years ago. But in this crowded, noisy basement kitchen, people who are all too familiar with failure find ways to succeed. Much of this success comes from how we build culinary confidence in these unsure students.

To enroll in our Culinary Job Training program, we ask each interested trainee to spend five days volunteering in our main kitchen, helping to prepare the 5,000 meals we deliver to 100 other homeless shelters, halfway houses, and other nonprofits across Washington, D.C. We toss them right into our hectic operation, where they work alongside other community volunteers -- who range from church groups to convicts doing court-ordered service -- and our staff in high-intensity production. This introduction is meant to be a two-way street. We see if these potential students can focus, take direction, and stay on task for a six-hour shift. They find out if they have an interest in a culinary career.

If a student is still on board after a week, they can apply to our program, offered four times each year for 14 weeks. From there, we start with the basics -- fruits, vegetables, and herbs -- before moving on to meats, poultry, pasta, and legumes. In each unit, we hammer home the main and most essential part of our culinary training, knife skills. Trainees practice these skills while helping our staff and our volunteers prepare DCCK's many meals each day. Instead of relying on the meals we serve, our students start feeding others instead.

We know not everything they do will be perfect, especially in the early days of each course. Some cuts will be messy, some dishes overcooked. I like to tell our students that, generally speaking, they can't really screw up. Mistakes are good things, because they allows our instructors to show trainees how to fix that mistake the next time.

There's one type of mistake we can't stand for, though. From day one, we infuse the culinary arts side of our program with a focus on food safety. Our kitchen staff likes to say "we answer to a higher authority," as our meals are eaten by thousands of at-risk people each day with compromised immune systems and other serious health issues. In all our years of operation, we have never had an instance of food-borne illness, and the intense training we provide to our culinary students is a big reason why. For students who have always been made to feel like part of "the problem" -- whether that problem is poverty, or drug abuse, or crime -- they're eager to be part of a solution, to give something back to a community they have often taken far too much from. And the high expectations help set a clear, measurable standard for them to judge their work by.

In 2012, we built two new classrooms that are pushing our skills training to higher levels. In our Culinary Training Kitchen, we installed modern kitchen equipment and practice stations suited to small group work and individual instruction. Student-teacher ratios matter in every educational setting, whether you're teaching kids or ex-cons. Thanks to this new space, our trainees are better prepared for the tools and techniques they will need to understand during their two-week-long professional internships across D.C. and on the first days of their new jobs. Meanwhile, our new computer lab helps our students seek out those employment opportunities and gives us space to provide special, quiet study sessions for the food handlers' licensing exam we administer to each student at the end of the program. It isn't easy to prepare for a test in a chaotic halfway house, and this new space offers a safe, productive learning environment where our staff can provide special one-on-one coaching.

By the time our students graduate from our program, they're pretty good with their hands. After all, since the recession of 2008, 90 percent of our 370 graduates have found full-time work. But the best tool they can use -- in the kitchen, at the workplace, or in their own lives -- is their head. Our version of culinary training is intense, but it's the other half of what we do, which we call self-empowerment, that helps people take hold of their futures. In the kitchen, we show students they can succeed. In those tough self-empowerment sessions, we challenge them to face their failures.

You can join us in shortening the line and empowering men and women to change their lives. Visit our Crowdrise page and make a contribution today. Your contribution helps us reach our goal of winning $150,000 from the Skoll Foundation. Tell your friends and spread the word.