by Kate McLean/Oakland North
The clock is ticking and the kitchen is a frenzy of hustling bodies. Twelve weeks of training comes down to this one final meal, and the class is feeling the pressure.
At the industrial range, Ashley Carnegie stirs sugar into a bubbling marinara, while Albert Dennie drizzles pale green sauce over a stuffed chicken breast. David “Obee” Gerald is already arranging his dishes on the stainless steel judging table. But things are not going as smoothly for Harold Phillips, who has roasted perfect, juicy red potatoes, only to reach into the warmer and discover that the tray is gone.
Everything stops for a moment while six student cooks and their teacher search the premises, but the potatoes have disappeared completely. Phillips thinks they have been snatched up by the line servers and portioned out on the lunch line, which means the crowd has unwittingly devoured one third of his final project.
It’s graduation day for the Kitchen of Champions Culinary Program, a job-training initiative run by the Catholic charity Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Alameda County in a Downtown Oakland kitchen on 23rd Street right below the 980 overpass. For the past twelve weeks, these students have been learning about high-volume cooking by preparing about 1,000 meals per day for the needy patrons of the St. Vincent de Paul Free Dinning Room. But today, as their friends and families begin to gather for the Friday ceremonies, they are supposed to be cooking for themselves. They are preparing their own recipes. And their dishes will be judged by their teacher, Chef Michael Stamm.
“I tell them, ‘Pretend that you run a restaurant and I am your customer,’” says Stamm, who swam backstroke in the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich before going to culinary school and taking the helm at the Kitchen of Champions Culinary Program two years ago. “‘I want you to serve me something that you would like to eat.’”
The students orbit the judging table nervously, attending to the final details of their dishes. In a few hours, once their final projects are complete, they will have a graduation ceremony and a reception with family and friends. But first, they have to show Chef Stamm what they can do.
Patrick Jerkins adds a parsley garnish to his halibut while Ashley Carnegie wipes sauce from the edge of her plate of pasta. Then everything is arranged and it’s time for the judging to begin.
Shanta Timmons, 27, has made coconut rice and tropical chicken. She topped it with crushed pineapple and stuffed it with honeydew melon, which earns her a skeptical look from Stamm at the judging table. But the breast is tender and sweet.
“When he said he liked it, a bead of sweat just rolled down my face,” says Timmons, a mother of two. “To know that I successfully completed something, accomplished something, is just a great feeling.”
That sense of accomplishment is hard won. Timmons and her fellow students have worked four hours a day, five days a week for twelve weeks, sometimes coming to class in the midst of enormous personal challenges.
The students have a saying about this. Throughout the day, the six graduates look at each other, high five, and tell one another: “and then there were six.” This is because they started in a class of ten people and four didn’t make it this far. A quarter of the students who enroll in Kitchen of Champions don’t complete the program.
Two weeks before graduation day, Patrick Jerkins lost his 21-year-old brother, who was killed in a car accident. Sometimes when he was driving to class, he would hear a song on the radio and find himself in tears on the freeway. His classmates’ support got him through those days.
“They’re my family too,” he says. “I’m still traumatized from the loss of my brother, but I’m pretty sure that he would want to see me happy and graduate and move on further in life.”
Jerkins, who is 32, has a special motivation. Just before his brother died, he and his partner Serico Justice had a baby girl. They named her Serenity.
“What made me come all the way to the end is I’m serious,” he says. “It’s always easy to be on the corner, slanging or doing whatever, but if you really got a passion for something, you should go ahead and put your 100 percent in and get what you want up out of it.”
Before Kitchen of Champions, Jerkins had trouble finding work in food service. He came close to getting a cooking job, but he didn’t know the temperature that meat needs to reach in order to be fully cooked. After lessons and tests from the program, he feels more prepared.
“Could probably go back and get the job,” he says. “So that’ll be one of the contacts I’ll be looking at too, as far as employment.”
The Kitchen of Champions Culinary Program is now in its second year. Culinary Services Coordinator Brett Foreman interviews 60 people for each class. About 80 percent of them have what he calls “a checkered past.” This may mean drug addiction, homelessness or criminal history. Few have graduated from high school.
He usually takes eight or nine students. Of those who graduate from the program, 70 percent find jobs.
One newly-hired student is David “Obee” Gerald. Standing at the back door just outside the St. Vincent de Paul kitchen, his manner is matter-of-fact. He moved to California from New York a year ago, and he had trouble “not knowing how to really start.”
He now works at the newly-opened Lake Chalet Restaurant on Lake Merritt. “They give you these network points to go to, to open up the city to you,” he says.
“No matter where you sit in this restaurant, you can see Oakland hills,” Gerald says with pride. “It’s really a beautiful restaurant. I think it’s probably one of the nicest restaurants in the Bay Area.”
Gerald made Caribbean rice, grilled salmon, cucumber salad, five bean soup and chocolate mousse with strawberries. He has been cooking since his days in the National Guard, and he knows he’s good. He didn’t sweat the preparation, and he isn’t surprised when Chef Stamm likes what he tastes.
“This dressing rocks,” Stamm says of the salad.
Then he moves on to the soup.
“I like a little more liquid,” he tells Gerald. “But it’s got a great flavor.”
At the other end of the table, another student is still recovering from the loss of his potatoes. Harold Phillips, 45, had no choice but to plate his braised brisket and spicy apple coleslaw without them and hope for the best.
Growing up in Louisiana, Phillips learned to cook from his grandmother, he says. In a family of four boys, he picked up recipes and tricks from his aunts and became the family chef.
At 6’4”, Phillps is broad-shouldered, with tired eyes and a wide smile. He loves people and he loves food. He recently dropped 50 pounds just by cutting back a little.
Phillips is the father of ten children. His oldest son is 25 and his youngest is four. He is the provider and primary caregiver for seven of them, who have two different mothers. Both women suffer from drug addictions, so he has stepped in to be a single parent.
“As the years go on, I figure this is where God put me at and this is what he wanted me to do,” he says. “I grew up without a father, and I didn’t want my children to grow up without a father.”
Phillips works two jobs, one as a supervisor at a security firm and the other as a bouncer in a nightclub. He also paints houses and picks up other odd jobs. For a time he worked as a cake decorator at Safeway.
“My kids are my life,” he said. “I wasn’t a very nice guy when I was young. But my children made me grow up.”
Working the night shift made it hard to come to cooking class at 8 AM. Often Phillips only got a few hours of sleep. But the long hours are about to pay off.
His brisket has been slowly braising in beer for 5 hours. He made his coleslaw with a horseradish mayonnaise and garnished it with apples and blackberries. To finish, he put together a root beer float—something he makes for his kids—with cherry ice cream and mint leaves on top.
Stamm lifts his knife over the brisket, saws off a thick piece and loads it into his mouth.
He closes his eyes for a moment.
“Lovely,” he says.
Then he moves on to the coleslaw.
“Delicious,” he says. “You hit it right on.”
The chef circles the table and tastes each student’s savory dishes one by one, gives his comments, and then makes a second lap around the table to try all the desserts. He dips in to two parfaits, a mousse, the root beer float, a snickers bar cheesecake and chocolate-dipped strawberries and bananas.
When he is done, he doesn’t mince words. Everyone has passed. They have graduated. Now they need to do the dishes.
Beer-braised Brisket, by Harold Phillips
4 cloves garlic
1 10-pound brisket
32 ounces of lager-style beer
In a frying pan, brown the brisket on each side. Place in a roasting pan and add the beer and garlic. Cover the pan and braise the meat at 275 degrees for 3 hours.
At the 3-hour mark, add the carrots and potatoes to the pan, cover it again, and continue to braise it at 275 for another 2 hours. The vegetables will soak up all the liquid in the pan.
After 5 hours, the meat should reach a temperature of 140 degrees when tested with a meat thermometer. Season with salt and pepper and serve.
Sautéed Halibut, by Patrick Jerkins
2 pounds of halibut (2 steaks)
Green onions, finely chopped
1/2 stick butter
1 clove Garlic
Pinch of garlic salt
Juice of 1 lemon
Sauté the green onions and garlic in the butter. Remove from the heat, add the lemon juice and garlic salt, and pour the mixture over the fish. Let it marinate overnight in the refrigerator.
The next day, sauté the fish until it is light brown and cooked medium well. Serve with parsley and lemon wedges.