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Training program helps low-income Oaklanders become chefs

on November 4, 2013

At the corner of 23rd Street and San Pablo in West Oakland, dozens of people form a packed queue leading in to the free dining room run by The Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Alameda County. Lunch starts at 10:45am, and for many who come, this will be their best chance for a healthy meal that day.

The kitchen at St. Vincent de Paul works toward two goals—providing meals to those in need and training local residents with low incomes to become chefs. Over the course of twelve weeks, students in the free program—called “Kitchen of Champions”—work on hard skills like food preparation and storage, as well as soft skills like how to prepare for job interviews. The food the students make then goes to the free kitchen.

According to Nic Ming, program coordinator for Kitchen of Champions, the program targets students who “face any kind of significant barrier” to finding work. On average, about half the students have a criminal record. At least 40 percent are homeless —or return each night to an otherwise unstable living environment—and nine out of ten didn’t have part- or full-time work before they started.

Ming herself was a student in Kitchen of Champions when she immigrated to the U.S. from Jamaica. While she had cooking experience from being around her mother’s commercial kitchen back home, she still found herself struggling to find work in the States.

“For people who are immigrants, it’s difficult sometimes to transition into desk jobs,” Ming said. “The program was appealing at that time in terms of… just being able to get some kind of income to stabilize myself.”

In 2012, Oakland had the third-worst unemployment rate—11.4 percent—of any of the 50 largest cities in nation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For immigrants, or people with criminal records, the high unemployment rate makes it that much harder to find steady work—which in turn means that a one-time offender is more likely to end up back in jail.

“It is a well-settled fact among re-entry advocates that people who have jobs are less likely to re-offend,” said Tanya Koshy, a staff attorney at the East Bay Community Law Center.

“Clients of ours find it hard to get any type of job,” she added. “It makes it hard for them to get an income, and disrupts family stability. And, broadly speaking, it leads to higher recidivism rates.”

Koshy notes that employers are often reluctant to hire someone with a criminal record, and that many jobs—from nursing to working as a barber—also have licensing requirements, which mean that applicants have to go through a background check. While such checks are meant to filter certain types of crimes, like ones that involve violence, even applicants with only minor offenses on their record often get denied.

That’s where Kitchen on Champions comes in. The 12-week course, which currently has 18 students enrolled, is designed to train students in the skills they need to land a job as a cook—without forcing them to cover the costs of a professional program. (Le Cordon Bleu, in San Francisco, charges nearly $20,000 for a culinary arts certificate.) According to the group’s records, Kitchen of Champions places roughly 75 percent of graduating students in a food service job, working at least 20 hours per week.

Donnell Bragg, one student in Kitchen of Champions, used to deal drugs on 96th Avenue. He hopes to leave Oakland and work as a cook on a cruise ship after finishing the program.

“I want to get away from California, period. Oakland, period,” said Bragg. “I want to be on a cruise ship so I can get away from things around here,” he added.

Before his hour-and-a-half-long bus ride to St. Vincent de Paul from his modest two-story home in East Oakland—not far from where a two-year-old boy was shot in a drive-by a few weeks ago—he gets up early each day to care for his mother, who is diabetic, and his grandmother, who is bedridden from a stroke.

“Donnell is very driven. He has the whole Mr. Mom routine,” said Ming. Apart from caring for his mother and grandmother, he also helps raise his two little siblings who are in elementary school.

Once he’s in the kitchen, Bragg is all business, rushing with focus from one task to another, only taking a break to crack the occasional joke.

“So basically you’re a chicken today… You’ve got to roll them over, man, you know what I’m saying?” he told one student, who was struggling to put eggs into a pot to boil without breaking them.

Gary Hills, another Kitchen of Champions trainee, joined the program in the hopes of opening his own Cajun restaurant someday. He has his own experience with homelessness, as he was once forced to live out of a van with his 12-year-old daughter when the machine for his carpet-cleaning business broke.

After serving six months in jail in 2008 for violating his probation, he said his record has impacted his ability to find work.

“A lot of times you’re being judged before you even walk in the door because of your past,” Hills said. “It’s hard.”

The current Kitchen of Champions class will graduate at the end of this year. Bragg, for one, hopes that day will signal the start of his new ocean-going life, away from the challenges of East Oakland.

On a ship, Bragg noted, there’s not much to do except work hard at your job and enjoy the view: a simple life that he welcomes. “You can’t do nothing but stay on the cruise ship, so, I won’t spend no money,” he said. “I’ll basically go out on the deck and look out—you know on my day off or whatever—and that’s it.”

Gary Hills from Oakland North on Vimeo.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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