In the Kitchen Beating Eggs and Whipping Up Jobs
Seattle program teaches culinary skills to the homeless and helps them find work
IT'S guest-chef night at the Common Meals Restaurant in downtown Seattle.Skip to next paragraph
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Customers filter into the dining room, many of them regulars who come each week to sample cuisine from different Seattle restaurants. Tonight's menu: a four-course vegetarian repast from the highly regarded Cafe Flora.
The event represents much more than a treat for eaters. Behind the scenes, two successful chefs share tricks of their trade with homeless men and women - mostly men - who are the restaurant's full-time cooking and waiting staff. These apprentices gain valuable job skills and credentials through ``Common Meals,'' a 12-week training course designed to help them get back on their feet economically.
Elisha Boyd is one of these success-stories-in-progress.
A few months ago, he was bedding down at a Seattle shelter after fighting off drug addiction. ``Once I got done doing treatment I didn't have nowhere to go,'' the softspoken Mr. Boyd says. ``Every day I would go up and read the bulletin board'' at the shelter. High placement rate
Common Meals caught his eye and had no waiting list at the time. (The program can take up to 22 people, with participants entering and leaving on a rolling basis.)
He signed up, stuck with it through early days spent washing dishes, and on this autumn day he has been learning from guest-chef Carolin Messier how to make an elaborate chocolate-hazelnut torte, or ``Autumn Strata,'' as she refers to it on her menu. The dessert includes layers of chocolate sponge cake, hazelnut butter cream, and poached pears.
If the Common Meals track record is any guide, Boyd will soon not only land a cooking job but find independent housing as well. The program has had an 86-percent placement rate in its first two years. Jobs are likely to be entry-level such as line-cook, with few chances to assemble an Autumn Strata. But it also promises to be more than a fast-food position.
Common Meals tries to funnel participants into large restaurants or institutional food-service organizations that offer good benefits and opportunity for advancement. Of those who find work and independent housing, four-fifths still have their jobs and apartments after a 13-week tracking period, says Tony Thibou of the Seattle YWCA, who acts as case manager for the participants.
Instead of looking for work upon completion of the program, Boyd has stayed with Common Meals for another month as one of two ``student supervisors.'' Now, in December, he is just completing that training, which is reserved for students with special leadership potential. Trainees must measure up
Participants must be homeless and unemployed to enter the program. In the first two weeks they ``run the gantlet'' to see if they can stay in the group, Mr. Thibou says.
Trainees must show on-time attendance, good performance, and sincerity, restaurant manager James Dunmore says. ``We try to maintain a certain balance where it's not one strike and you're out.''