Getting Comfortable Being Uncomfortable
by Rosie DeQuattro
When you think back to high school, do you wish maybe you hadn’t squandered that precious time worrying about what you’d be when you grew up? Wouldn’t it have been great to have had an inspiring adult around championing your potential, teaching you all about how to be successful? For the fortunate among us, that may describe the role our parents played. But for a lot of today’s high school students, that role might never be filled were it not for Future Chefs’ Toni Elka.
In 2007, with a one-time grant and a citywide network of chefs and culinary teachers, Elka launched the school-to-career program called Future Chefs. Now in its fourth year, Future Chefs operates within the culinary programs of four high schools: Quincy High School, Madison Park Vocational Technical High School in Roxbury, Everett High School and Somerville High School.
Along with one other full-time employee, Ann DiClemente, a school-to-career specialist, Future Chefs identifies and helps low-income culinary students in those schools—students who are chosen for their motivation, strong work ethic and, in some cases, innate culinary talent. Through one-on-one counseling, peer group sessions and participation in Future Chefs–sponsored events, these students are given the opportunity to not only improve their culinary skills but also to receive help with post-secondary planning, applying for scholarships to colleges and culinary schools, and finding jobs in restaurants and food service companies.
The program does not teach culinary courses, but rather works with culinary students within existing culinary arts programs to reinforce, support and supplement the culinary education they are already getting. “The program works in the passage between adolescence and adulthood,” explains Elka. A lot of kids “end high school with no plan, no sense of strong adult community that they can connect with to help them make that passage.” In a practical sense, these students also need to acquire a lot of what Elka calls, “soft skills”: skills like time management, how to write a business email and how to communicate professionally. “Those early-earning years are crucial for lifetime earnings potential.”
It’s a challenging program. “We do a lot of career exploration,” Elka says. “We take them to farms; we do a lot of community service; we begin to pair them up with chefs as volunteers at events.” This handson, real-world experience often takes them outside their comfort zones. They are called upon to work events in wealthy people’s homes and at large social gatherings; they learn to build a professional network. Fundamentally, they learn how to “get comfortable being uncomfortable.”
You can’t miss the passion and compassion in Elka’s voice when she talks about the students in her program. She herself graduated from high school with no plan and little guidance. “I didn’t know how to go to college,” she says. “In my family, college was not a priority. It took me a long time to finish. I don’t just want the program to be successful; I want these kids to be successful.”
About 80% of Future Chefs high school students go on to postsecondary schools, such as New England Culinary Institute, Newbury College, Southern New Hampshire University and others. Some students go directly into work in the field. One student went into an unpaid internship at the restaurant TW Food, in Cambridge. TW Food’s chef, Tim Wegman, recommended the student to Barry Maiden at Hungry Mother, and that student is now a key member of that staff. “It was life-changing for her,” Elka exclaims. “People go to culinary school and then line up behind these great chefs to get into these kitchens—and they can’t!”
Many in the program fulfill their heretofore-unimaginable dream of completing four years of college and earning a degree. Aquila Collins is one of those—“a Future Chefs star,” says Elka. When Collins was in the 11th grade at Madison Park Vocational Technical High School in Roxbury, a baking instructor introduced her to Future Chefs. That meeting set in motion the course of her life for years to come. Under Future Chefs’ counsel and direction, Collins sharpened her culinary skills and entered a competition at her school judged by Boston-area chefs (Chris Douglass of Ashmont Grill was one of them).
“I did really well in breaking down a chicken. I had practiced it so many times.We ate a lot of chicken,” she laughs. Collins won a scholarship to Culinary Boot Camp atMonroe College in New York. Now, at age 20, she is a junior at Southern New Hampshire University, there on a scholarship she received through Future Chefs, and is well on her way toward a bachelor’s degree in hospitality administration. Already Collins has worked in the kitchens of Ashmont Grill and Upstairs at the Square.
“I didn’t plan on going to college at all,” she says. “I wanted to just graduate from high school and go to work. I always knew I could do the work, but I never wanted to. I didn’t want to go to school and waste my family’s money.” Collins gets really good grades, and now she talks about how proud her family is of her accomplishments and speaks confidently about her next steps. “My goal is to have a catering company,” and through networking, taking out a loan and finding people who believe in her and are willing to invest in her, she feels she can succeed.
Future Chefs’ community of dedicated Boston-area restaurateurs and chefs are a key ingredient in the program’s recipe for success. These are chefs who are motivated to work with kids; chefs like Chris Douglass at Ashmont Grill and Tim Wegman at TW Food, Will Gilson, Jody Adams, Tony Maws and Jasper White. One of the reasons Future Chefs has been so successful is because of the commitment to the program of Chris Douglass, in particular. Douglass is chef and owner of Tavolo and Ashmont Grill, both in his hometown of Dorchester. (He is well known as owner and chef of the former Icarus, in the South End.)
“For me there are a lot of personal reasons I’m with this program. I live in a community where there are not a lot of opportunities for young people, so it’s great if I can give them an opportunity; it’s good for me, the kids and the community.” Students arrive in his kitchen as “raw talent,” he says. This is good and bad. “Sometimes it’s a lot of extra work. But if I can break them into good habits early, it is going to serve them well in their career. Frequently we get a diamond in the rough—some of these kids can really shine.” His reward is being able to track the students’ careers and watch them develop into professionals.
In Douglass’s kitchen, Future Chefs students have the opportunity to learn all the fundamentals of working in a professional kitchen.
They learn about safety, about the importance of rotating the stock, about labeling and dating and handwashing. A lot of what Douglass mentors is not the techniques of cooking but rather things like showing up on time, not talking back, not talking on your phone at work, being responsible and what it means to be part of a team.
“Teaching culinary skills is, in a way, the easy part,” he says. Success is not as much about technique as it is about the ability to process lots of information quickly, the ability to take direction well and the ability to work as a team. “The curtain goes up seven days a week. Everybody is counting on everyone to show up.”
Erin Hockey bubbles over with enthusiasm for the program. When we spoke in October, Hockey, 17, a senior at Quincy High School, had just returned from a stint on the Grilled Cheese Truck for Food Truck Nation at SOWA OpenMarket Days. She has also been given the opportunity to work at the Duxbury Oyster Festival, and at The Farm at Long Island Shelter in Boston Harbor. After spending two weeks of freshman year in her school’s culinary arts program, Hockey decided the hands-on, real-life learning style was for her. Quincy’s Head Chef-Instructor, Patrick Noe, introduced her to the Future Chefs program in her sophomore year and she has never looked back.
“I would never have had the experiences or the opportunities. If I’m not doing anything on a Saturday and I can go out and work at a restaurant and meet a chef, that’s awesome!” Hockey has her sights squarely focused on college, and her first choice is New England Culinary Institute’s bachelor’s degree program.
For the time being, Future Chefs is focused on the culinary field. But the goal is to eventually apply the lessons learned to all the hands on trades, like farming, landscaping, high-end renovations and maintenance of historic buildings. Elka is hopeful but sees the challenges. She says that these occupations are not being passed on to kids of color or to working-class kids. “Partly, our kids don’t know how to dream about it—they don’t have the social connections; they don’t know how to make it happen for themselves.”
“What Future Chefs is really trying to do is to find the thing in each kid that best expresses who that kid is.” It’s like the concept of terroir, she suggests. She wants her students to value their uniqueness and appreciate that that diversity is what makes up the human community.
“We know that it’s not just upper-class white people who need to think about local and sustainable—the whole community needs to be thinking about that.We want these kids to be emissaries of that message, too—we want them to participate in the future of our food culture.”
Rosie DeQuattro is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Edible Boston. You can read her food-related stories on her blog, Food andWine With a Story, www.rosiedequattro.com, follow her tweets at @rosiedequattro, and find her on Facebook.