Nonprofit organization's culinary program helps build - and rebuild - people's lives from the ground up

If it weren’t for the Culinary School program at the Food Bank of Delaware, Rory Price would probably still be cooking somewhere – but he wouldn’t be pursuing his lifelong dream.

“I want to own a sports bar – an Eagles sports bar – hopefully in Wilmington,” he said.

Instead of spending his time working for someone else, Price is investing in himself as one of the 12 students currently enrolled in the program, which since its inception in 2002 has seen hundreds of students successfully navigate its 14-week intensive training course and enter the workforce with new life and job skills.

“Some students come through the criminal justice center, some come through the department of labor, and some are just walk-ins who are looking for a new career path,” said communications director Kim Turner. “We try to keep a fairly balanced mix of students here.”

That mix, she added, includes people starting over with nothing to their name, to students who pay out-of-pocket to be a part of the program.

“We rely on a variety of funding sources,” Turner said, adding that organizations like Capital One and JP Morgan Chase are frequent contributors to the program, allowing them to fully fund or offset student tuition with internal scholarships when applicable.

SKILLS FOR LIFE

In the intensive crash-course program, students are taught basic and high-end culinary skills as well as receiving certification in basic safety practices that are a step away from being a statewide mandate.

“On average, at least 80 percent of our students leave the program with jobs, which is our obvious goal,” said Food Bank president and CEO Patricia Beebe, who founded the school shortly after taking her position in 2002.

Since then, Beebe said the program has expanded to a second location at the Milford food bank, and has grown its support network to include partnerships with nearly 40 hotels, restaurants and other institutions.

“Some of the populations we serve, they’ve really seen the dark sides of life and they want to make a change,” Beebe said. “They want to move on to someplace else, and we work to help get them there.”

“It’s a very holistic approach to student learning,” Turner said, adding that conflict resolution, financial literacy training and other basic skillsets are part of the experience at the culinary school.

“We provide them with what they need to not only make it in the food industry, but in their daily lives.” Turner said. “We make sure we have everything the student needs to thrive and succeed.”

That can include food, clothing, housing, traveling expenses and a variety of other needs that could otherwise hinder their progress.

“The needs vary, but we recruit from a very diverse pool,” said Culinary School program director Sonia Murrey.

Students go through a needs assessment before the program begins, Murrey said, and are also met with throughout the course to determine if their needs are in fact being addressed.  

“It’s a good program, definitely well-rounded, and meets the needs of a large pool of people,” she said.

FROM TUTOR TO TABLETOP

For Chef Nicole Wilson, her pride comes from seeing her students work hard during the sessions as much as having them successfully exit the program as trained, professional, entry level prep cooks.

“I take it personally if there’s a problem and they can’t finish this course,” Wilson said. “My motto is: ‘I will not fail; I will prevail.’”

According to Wilson, regardless of their previous experience, the students start with kitchen basics – Ramen noodle basic, in fact.

“Week one, we had them microwaving Hormel (chili) and making nachos,” she said.

As the program progresses, the students spend time in the classroom working from textbooks, and in the adjoining fully-functional kitchen, where things like kitchen safety, cleanliness and knife skills are honed.

The hands-on portion also includes cooking challenges, as in the week eight challenge to come up with a starch dish, where students are judged on everything from safety to presentation.

The final two weeks of the program, each student will hold a paid internship at a restaurant or institution where the skills they learned during Wilson’s “crash course in culinary cuisine” are put immediately to work.

Through her network of professional connections, Wilson is able to approach students on a case-by-case basis, addressing their strengths and desires, and pair them with businesses where they’re more likely to thrive.

She said she also presents them with opportunities to “be a giver and not a taker” by volunteering at events and for other nonprofits.

“I instill that in my students, and in this program,” she said. “And when they succeed because they want to and not because I want them to, that’s the success I’m looking for.”

PASSION AND PRIDE

For his part, student David Coverdale doesn’t mind Wilson’s in-class challenges – in fact, he thrives on them.

“I like cooking on the fly,” the 20-year-old Bear resident said as he plated his couscous dish at the end of the starch challenge. “I like to see what I can just come up with using the ingredients they give me.”

Working with versatile grain for the first time, Coverdale served his couscous in a circular mold, topped with fresh mushrooms and served with pan-fried tomatoes and pesto made from basil he grew in his garden back home.

“I brought in a lot of herbs and veggies for everyone to use,” he said. “I want to be a team player.”

Watching Coverdale and his fellow students working hard in the final minutes of the 90-minute challenge, Wilson finds it difficult to recall seeing such a hard working group of students – and she’s been here for over a year-and-a-half.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Wilson said, smiling and shaking her head in disbelief. “They’re really making me proud here today.”