Ronald Brown can quickly recall the date of what was supposed to be his final class at Chicago’s Community Kitchens: March 24.

Brown, a 53-year-old Chicagoan born and raised on the city’s South Side, had a joined the Food Depository’s 14-week culinary job training program to hone his cooking skills and create a new path for himself after losing stable employment several years ago.

“I was looking for a change,” he said. “New career.”

Brown has always enjoyed cooking, something he said began back when he was a teenager living with his grandmother, making them dinner so it would be ready when she came home from work. The program was a good fit, he said. He was learning the proper techniques for preparing meals, as well as the ins and outs of working in a commercial kitchen.

He had only two weeks to go when life as we all knew it changed.

After COVID-19 began to spread through Illinois, prompting a shelter-in-place order and new health guidelines, Chicago’s Community Kitchens was forced to put its flagship back-of-the-house training on hold indefinitely.

“I was a little hurt, but I understood,” Brown remembered after he and his fellow students were told in mid-March that the program was on hiatus. “I was so close, and I had been here every day. Never missed a day. Never was late.”

Despite the unprecedented challenges, Chicago’s Community Kitchens staff quickly adapted to support those already working through the program. After months of delays and changes, Brown and a dozen of his classmates were finally able to finish what they started, graduating amid a global pandemic.

Completing the program, especially with the unexpected barriers, felt like “a real victory,” Brown said.

“It’s satisfying because I got myself right to do this program,” he said. “Then to get stagnant, and then to be able to come back and still finish it, I felt real proud of myself.”

Keeping students connected

Of the students affected by the shelter-in-place order, those in the early and middle stages of their lessons transitioned into an online, front-of-house or food handler certification training. The handful of students – including Brown – who were in the final weeks of their program, were able to return in early June in limited group sizes. At that time, they attended their final classes in the kitchen, interned with the Food Depository’s meal production team, and took their ServSafe certification exam.

During the months in between, the Chicago’s Community Kitchens chef instructors offered at-home learning opportunities to prepare students for their certification exams and keep them practicing their culinary techniques. The virtual lessons covered everything from knife cuts, to grilling, to preparing a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. For those unable to access technology at home, staff made accommodations for them to come in and receive on-site technical support.

It was a difficult transition, Brown said. He went from waking up at 3:30 a.m. five days a week – giving him enough time to leave his apartment in Auburn Gresham, catch his connecting buses, and be in the kitchen on time at 7 a.m. – to not leaving home except to go to the grocery store. During that period, Brown said it was easy to feel bored or depressed, especially when thinking about the fact that he could’ve been through the program and working a new job if not for the pandemic.

But the interactions with the Chicago’s Community Kitchens team, he said, lifted his spirits.

“I think it helped me get through,” he said. “And it also helped me keep my skills sharp.”

Program staff also sought ways to support their students beyond the lessons, connecting them to needed social services, resources and financial support through stipends and completion bonuses. They also connected Brown to the Chicago Resiliency Fund, a financial assistance program for those who were excluded from the federal stimulus check. Staff also put him in touch with Metropolitan Family Services, which is helping him find his own housing.

Ronald Brown (right) receives his graduation certification from Malik Kemokai, the Food Depository's director of workforce development.strategy and operations.

Ronald Brown (right) receives his graduation certification from Malik Kemokai, the Food Depository’s director of workforce development.strategy and operations.

Even amid the changing landscape of the hospitality industry, Brown believes his future is bright. He’s currently employed at a grocery store not far from his home, a job he was connected to through Chicago’s Community Kitchens.

“It just feels good to be working,” he said. “I haven’t had a job, so the fact that I have somewhere to go every day…something to do, and of course to get a check, I’m happy just off of that.”

In the long-term, he dreams of becoming a professional chef and running his own kitchen one day. He still looks forward to the eventual, widespread reopening of the restaurant industry once the virus is contained.

“We’re going to be able to congregate again,” he said. “And I’ll be ready.”

Although Chicago’s Community Kitchens 14-week culinary training is on hold due to the pandemic, the program is adapting with four-week front-of-house and food handler trainings this fall. These trainings will prepare students for jobs that are currently in demand, and they will be offered through a hybrid of mostly distance and some in-person learning. 

To stay up-to-date or learn about ways to support this program, visit  chicagosfoodbank.org/job-training.