Boston Cooking Program Puts Homeless in Kitchens

Julia Child speaks to graduates at New England's largest shelter

When he was studying cooking on his native island of Trinidad, Roger Wellington caught a glimpse of Julia Child on his little TV set. He instantly became enamored with her expertise, her one-of-a-kind voice, and especially her tall presence in a field that was short on women. Little did he realize that, many years later at Boston's Pine Street Inn, he'd be sharing the spotlight with the very chef he had dreamed of meeting.

At last week's packed graduation ceremony for 10 formerly homeless men and women who'd completed the shelter's food-service training program, Mr. Wellington and Mrs. Child congratulated this striking group on its achievement.

But it was the dreams of those graduates that mattered most to Wellington that day.

During his own training in hospitality administration at Boston University, Wellington made his way over to Pine Street, in a tougher part of town. In 1993, after he'd worked there part-time for a couple of years, he revitalized a one-year cooking program for some of the Inn's ''transitional guests,'' some of whom were battling dependency on alcohol and drugs. For those chosen, he initiated field internships as well as giving them the responsibility for helping to cook more than 1,500 meals a day for shelter residents.

But today his program's embrace extends far beyond the kitchen. Trainees are also taught life skills, such as how to manage their money, how to stay sober, and how to build self-esteem.

''I am looking over your shoulders,'' a fatherly sounding Wel lington told the graduates. ''I don't want to see any of you back at Pine Street Inn.''

So far, placements have been strong. Most of last year's 16 graduates are working and living on their own.

From the class of '95, graduate Jackie Swain says her strategy for self-sufficiency includes starting a culinary arts school for the deaf. ''There isn't one in the country,'' says Ms. Swain, whose spunk and determination despite her own loss of hearing has been an inspiration to her fellow Pine Street Inn residents.

Chris Cassels, administrator of the inn's food services and clothing programs, reports that Pine Street is the only homeless shelter in the country with such a rigorous and extensive cooking program.

And it's getting noticed: The standing-room-only crowd of about 250 included clusters of chefs in whites who left behind lunchtime crowds to offer their support. Some of them will tap Pine Street's new talent pool for their kitchens.

After an emotional speech during which he shared anecdotes about his father's kindness to the homeless, Chad Doe, president of Ninety Nine Restaurant-Pubs, told the graduates to ''just call,'' and he'd put them to work. And the Kresge Foundation has awarded Pine Street Inn a $1 million challenge grant toward a capital plan that will include a new food-services and job-training facility.

Child nudged the graduates toward hard work: ''It's a 10-year discipline,'' she said, lamenting that too many cooking-school graduates expect to quickly land sous chef or executive-chef jobs. ''You may have to start with washing dishes,'' she warned, but as everyone knew by her example, sticking to the pots and pans can bring big results.

Her verve was returned by Jackie Swain. ''I'll be keeping in touch,'' she winked to Julia Child as she accepted her certificate. The audience then broke into applause and cameras clicked madly.

As they joined Roger Wellington and the others at the tables the culinary class had prepared, Child squinted at the fruit, stuffed mushrooms, and pastries, and chose a piece of chicken satay on a skewer.

From that moment, the champion of French cooking, a notably generous smattering of New England chefs and restaurateurs, a visionary from Trinidad, and 10 formerly homeless men and women were bonded in a new and important way.

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