Chicago's Community Kitchens students share passion for cooking

Chicago's Community Kitchens students get hands-on training.
Students in Chicago's Community Kitchens get hands-on training so they can begin a career in the foodservice industry. The program is one way the Food Depository is helping end the cycle of poverty.

The Greater Chicago Food Depository is well-known for its support of providing food for Chicago's hungry, but the Food Depository provides other opportunities to support its community. The Chicago's Community Kitchens program is one of the Food Depository's community improvement programs that help the unemployed and underemployed "train for a successful career in the foodservice industry." For many of its students, the free 12-week culinary course is the opportunity of a lifetime.

"For those who succeed," said Kate Maehr, the executive director of the Food Depository, "this is the beginning of the end of the cycle of poverty."
 
The fall class of Chicago's Community Kitchens is filled with people who are pursuing a life passion, changing jobs and, most importantly, looking for employment. For Carolyn Bates, who started the culinary training program in September, the class is giving her the tools she needs to succeed.

"Cooking is something I've always been doing," the Chicago resident said. "The program is really helping out … and, in the end, I think it will pay off."

Mack Duckett, another student, heard about the free Chicago's Community Kitchens program after driving people in his neighborhood to food pantries in the West Pullman neighborhood.

"I've worked in the restaurant business in service as a bartender, and server for catering companies, but I now want to try working in the kitchen. It's been a lot of fun and it's really professional," Mack said.

Mack is currently in between jobs and is looking for work and thinks this is the perfect timing for him to be in the class.

I was nervous about a change in my life. This has been a big step in becoming more responsible.
— Ricco Spencer

"I'm 100 percent confident I'll be able to find work after this class," Mack said.
 
Other students, like Christie Wells, who lives in Schaumburg, have a longer commute to the Food Depository. After the class, which runs from 7:30 a.m. through 3:30 p.m., Christie works in bookkeeping at a Northwest Suburban office.

"The toughest part of the class for me is learning the proper measurements," Christie said. "Finding out certain amounts of food that go into a recipe is a challenge."
 
During the course, the students develop knife skills, meal preparation with meats, vegetables, soups and deserts, and will become competent in using and understanding a cook's lexicon.

After eight weeks of class work, each student will be placed at an internship site which includes restaurants, hotels and cafeterias for a week, and will return to the Food Depository for the final two weeks of classes before graduating. Historically, 70 percent of the graduating students will have jobs after finishing the class, and after one year of employment, 65 percent of the students retain their cooking jobs. For those students who decide that they do not want to pursue culinary careers after finishing the workshop, the Food Depository provides life skills classes every Friday that help prepare its students in other facets of life outside the kitchen. These classes include computer proficiency, resume building and financial literacy.

Ricco Spencer, a father of two children, was seeking a job at Daley College when he was advised by career counselors to look into Chicago's Community Kitchens.

"I was nervous about a change in my life," Ricco said. "This has been a big step in becoming more responsible."

The biggest change in Ricco's life occurs when he returns home to his two sons, ages 13 and 10.

"Everybody wants me to cook now," he said. "Taking this class has affected how my family looks at me when I return to my house. As a man I feel good having my kids look up to me."