Photo by Michael Piazza
At 20, Toni Elka hitchhiked from rural Connecticut to Boston with $5 in her pocket and quickly learned the dangers of being a young woman without a plan, structure or supports. This experience—along with growing up in a factory-farming town as the granddaughter of a union organizer and farmer, holding cook and catering jobs and developing and leading youth programs—solidified her commitment to social justice, food and innovation. All this inspired her in 2008 to found Future Chefs, a comprehensive school-to-career program that gives youth hard and soft skills in the kitchen to prepare them for any job.
Future Chefs starts in the kitchen but can lead to any path. “Food is the medium and the community that we work in is the support. Our approach is really the magic; it says, ‘you have a lot in you, let’s figure out what it is, let’s see things you may not see yet in yourself and figure out how to develop that,’” she says.
Toni has a track record for taking chances on good ideas. Indeed, Future Chefs continues to grow and build roots in the community; plans are in the works for a move to a space double its size in Roxbury. “Our comfort zones are not where life happens,” she says. “And these young people, in order for them to advance in the world, they have to be able to step into spaces where they haven’t been invited to yet or don’t have people who look like them or are like them.”
This story appeared in the Winter 2019 issue.
Lesley Mahoney is a South Dartmouth-based writer, editor and content strategist who loves a new food find, whether at a farmers market, restaurant or local purveyor. She can be reached at email@example.com.