“Just remember that you can do anything that you set your mind to; you are going to fall, you’re going to mess up, but you are going to be alright in the end.”
Charles Hall pauses a moment and looks at the 21 men and women seated before him in white chef hats. These are the most recent graduates of Second Harvest Food Bank’s Triad Community Kitchen, a 13-week culinary training program that provides culinary and life skills to unemployed and underemployed individuals. Some graduates are beaming with pride, laughing and clapping wildly; others are more pensive, nodding quietly along with what Hall says.
Hall, who graduated from Triad Community Kitchen (TCK) in 2011, had, in his own words, “a bumpy ride.” He admits that his life at one point had been “out of control.” He had trouble keeping work and even more trouble with the law. But an advertisement for TCK on a city bus was the sign that led him back to a world of love and self-respect. TCK helped Hall regain his footing and, after graduation, connected him to Claire Calvin, owner of The Porch Kitchen and Cantina in Winston-Salem, where after years of hard work, Charles is now the General Manager. “In my time in the TCK, I learned many things, one of which was, this is about being part of something I can call a ‘family.’”
His story makes sense and is familiar to many people in this room, including Chef Jeff Bacon who founded TCK in 2006 to offer pathways to gainful employment for individuals ready for a fresh start. Chef Bacon often shares with students the story of his own “bumpy ride” and many students cite him as a true mentor in every sense of the word. “I came to TCK because I felt accepted,” says William Hairston, who is graduating today. “Everywhere else was a closed door.”
To date, 629 students have graduated from TCK, going on to work for local favorites such as Willow’s, Milner’s and The Village Tavern. Today, however, is a special graduation, because along with the culinary school students, TCK is graduating its first Hospitality Residency Program class. This two-year program works closely with Second Harvest’s Providence Restaurant and Catering, giving students an immersive experience in the hospitality industry and real, resume-building work experience. “In TCK, the core competencies are attendance and punctuality, customer service, equipment knowledge, food safety, kitchen math, knife skills, time management and teamwork, in addition to the culinary knowledge and skills,” explains Leah Harkey, TCK’s Client Services Coordinator.
This graduation ceremony, however, makes it clear that the programs aren’t just centered on culinary expertise and development of one’s skills in a professional kitchen: the words “family,” “love,” and “community” are used over and over again as the students accept their diplomas. In fact, much of TCK’s incredible success is because of the support and care offered to the students by Chef Bacon and his team. Students cheer wildly for Director of Culinary Education Janis Karathanas and circle around and hug Shakessia Robinson, TCK’s Production Chef — both of whom the students know are also graduates of the program.
“I have a deep belief in the potential of a human being,” says another TCK graduate-turned employee Vanessa Lanier. Lanier is the Executive Chef for Second Harvest’s Providence Restaurant & Catering where the graduating Hospitality Residency students have spent their time. Students in the Hospitality Residency are given the opportunity to work in paid positions alongside seasoned professionals like Lanier and Bacon at the restaurant, preparing them to move forward in their culinary careers and into leadership roles. This, of course, makes dining at the non-profit Providence Restaurant one of the Triad’s most unique experiences: all proceeds from your tab, and any additional gifts you make in lieu of tips support TCK’s programs.
The TCK culinary school and Hospitality Residency programs represent solutions-oriented approaches to the core issues that Second Harvest Food Bank is addressing. In 35 years of operation, Second Harvest has become adept at reclaiming and redistributing millions of pounds of food annually to people in need. However, persistent hunger is a symptom of larger issues facing our communities, including employment and wages. In addition to its core mission of supporting healthy communities through food distribution, Second Harvest is also working to address the root causes of hunger through programs such as Imagine Forsyth and these TCK programs. Ask any employee or volunteer there and you will hear the same sentiment. “We hope to work ourselves out of business.”
But back at the TCK graduation, that work and long road are not on anyone’s mind. Today, it is about celebration, achievement, the opportunities ahead… and two large cakes with “CONGRATULATIONS” piped across them.
“We are going to push you as a graduate to become your best self to get you to better places,” says Chef Lanier, smiling at the students before her. “No one goes out these doors without a purpose.”
For more information or to support these students’ future endeavors, go to providencerestaurantws.com/donate.