Oakland-Based Culinary Program Trains Ex-Cons, Homeless For Free
by Jon Leckie, Oakland Local
At the corner of 23rd Street and San Pablo Avenue, lines for lunch grow long well before mid-day, but Saint Vincent de Paul of Alameda County is prepared. Serving up nearly 800 free meals a day, five days a week, to Oakland’s needy is something the community center has been doing since 1976.
The facility is also home to a series of other services, including drop-in centers for men and women, health clinics and employment programs.
“Integration equals sustainability,” Christine Lias, SVdP’s communication and grants manager said, and it’s that idea that has SVdP serving Oakland from both sides of the lunch counter.
Kitchen of Champions is a 12-week culinary training program that prepares its graduates for jobs in the food service and hospitality industry at no cost to participants. The curriculum incorporates both classroom and hands-on training, not only in kitchen techniques, but also soft skills, such as resume writing and conflict resolution, to empower their students with the skills and confidence they need to be successful in the workplace, and turn jobs into careers.
“Ultimately, we successfully accomplish our goals when they can land jobs,” Culinary Service Coordinator Nic Ming said. “This helps shift the community over time as a result of people keeping their jobs.”
With Oakland still facing double-digit unemployment rates, many of the program’s students never completing high school and nearly half with a history of incarceration, support from the community is crucial to reaching the program’s goals.
“One of the things I love about working with the program is the diversity of the people we serve,” Ming said. “There are people changing careers, displaced, homeless and low income people. It’s a really deep range.” But one of the successes of the program, in addition to its 75 percent graduation rate, has been building a network of partners that are willing to work with such a wide variety of graduates.
According to Ming, within three weeks of graduation, 30 percent land jobs, with the rest finding employment after another eight weeks. Part of that success is due to local restaurateurs and organizations like Tonya Holland’s Brown Sugar Kitchen on Mandela Parkway and Cal Dining who continually return to SVdP to recruit recent grads.
Speaking with the students, and sampling their food, it’s easy to see why.
“At the moment, we’re preparing Chicken a la King for 500 people, and a yogurt blackberry banana smoothie — gallons of it,” student Millicent Crossley said. “I love to cook, period. I would cook everyday of my life if people would let me. I also like to serve people. I like to see them smile when they eat my food.”
Crossley heard about the program from a job placement center after returning to Oakland following a stint in Florida, but has dreams of opening up her own restaurant that fuses Spanish and Moroccan cuisine. “Tapas with a French twist,” she said. “Beauty on a small plate.”
While Crossley’s ambitions are likely to take her to far corners of the world, other students, like Lorenzo Paige, are taking a more domestic approach.
“Chicken always touched me, and I can flavor it the best,” the father of six said. “From rotisserie to fried, I can do it all.”
Paige hopes his fried chicken can one day compete with big businesses like Wing Stop. “The secret I can’t tell you, but it’s got a different crunch to it,” he said. “When you say you want chicken crunchy, I give you that crunch. The secret to that is from hands-on experimentation.”
But more than the experience of preparing large meals firsthand, Paige also sees the program impacting his life outside the kitchen’s walls.
“I feel a lot more confidence in myself. My kids look at me when I come home, ‘Daddy’s a cook, he’s a chef.’ Family feels a lot better, and it’s boosted my energy level,” he said. “This school opens doors for everybody, this is a fair chance for everybody. Lots of people didn’t graduate high school, but you come here, you get a chance.”
Kevin Davis, a student in transition from a job working security for Oakland, seconds that sentiment, and feels the meals he’s learning to make have the potential to spread the spirit of integration well beyond the Kitchen of Champions, catering to the sustainability of the whole city.
“I like the connection that food brings, pulling families and cultures together,” he said. “In the melting pot of Oakland, food can help some of the tension we have. You can’t fuss if you’re full.”