This piece was originally published in Our Town.
Dreams of food find expression in many ways. Some are driven to a career in the food world by thoughts of entrepreneurship, culinary passion or Food Network fame, while others see the entry level jobs as a way out and up.
The West Side Campaign Against Hunger, on West End Avenue and 86th, has been a leader in the anti-hunger movement for decades. WSCAH provides food for about 15,000 families a year through its supermarket-style pantry, translating to 1.7 million pounds of healthy food. "The people who come to West Side Campaign Against Hunger for food have the potential for upward economic mobility. We use our core strengths in distribution and preparation of healthy food to offer a pathway toward jobs that can offer household stability to our customers," executive director Stewart Desmond said.
In WSCAH's 12-week long Chef Training Program, chef/instructor Andrea Bergquist teaches the skills needed to work in the kitchen, and in concert with counselors, how to make successful life changes. Applicants have never worked in food service and are unemployed. The process seeks to determine what obstacles individuals are facing. In the early weeks, there are dropouts. It is the reality of what culinary work entails -- washing dishes, sweeping floors, standing up for long hours -- that makes "getting out of one's comfort zone" difficult. The group meets four times a week from 12-4 p.m. Part of the program with counselors includes learning how to set goals, dream big and then achieve them.
I joined the summer season class toward the end of their program, a smaller group than usual with about 10 men and women, ages ranging from mid-20s to mid-50s.
Chef Andrea began with a review from the various Wednesday food sections -- a Village Voice article about restaurants losing leases (the theme of gentrification resonated with the group); featured recipes from The New York Times about peaches spurred a thought about a future recipe; a story in Metro NY about BBQ and reading nutrition labels, all pointing to developing an awareness of trends and a sensitivity to details in the restaurant and food industry. A brief conversation about cooking methods for rice (there are three options) and a discussion about grains preceded the move to the kitchen for some hands on work.
On the menu: Feta, tomato and watermelon salad (the ubiquitous first course in restaurants citywide became an exploration of new flavors and unusual combinations as well as seasonality) and granola (highlighting the conversation about oats and nutrients).
Our two hours of cooking and talking were exhilarating. The students' passions, curiosity, knife skills and food literacy were evident. I felt a hearty dose of homegrown food-love in comparison with the jaded veneer of the lauded urban foodie.
I worked with Sade and Daquan figuring out our plan of attack for a very large watermelon. Questions like "what have you learned" and "where do you want to work" accompanied our figuring out how best to get the seeds out of the now sliced watermelon. Linda shared her love of hospitality, making the transition from a former job in social services to hopefully, a job in catering. There were aspirations for entry into the restaurant world, or the dream of operating a food truck or small entrepreneurial venture. "I want to learn about new things."
The salad was done -- the ingredients combined with a delicious and simple dressing of olive oil, sherry vinegar and mint chiffonade. The reaction? Delightful and startling. The combo was surprising but aptly analyzed as "a combination of sweet, salty and sour." The pride in creating something so beautiful and intriguing was palpable. It was offered to waiting pantry clients (food critics all), an elegant footnote in sobering circumstances.
What happens post graduation? Students will have earned their Food Handlers Certificate and appointments with job placement counselors. Almost half will get jobs and receive more training. Chef Andrea emphasized that the program is about skills but also motivation to develop their lives. "It is about people overcoming obstacles - it is a long road and food is the garnish for that journey." Her greatest pride is seeing students who get work and come back happy.
In households everywhere, meals are prepared several times a day -- for most it's a chore, but for others it sparks something previously undiscovered and before you know it, a universe of possibility opens up. Dreams of cooking, working in a kitchen and feeding others begin; turning food into art, work into passion. Eating is never the same again, and hopefully, neither is life.