Westside Works teaches knife skills, life skills

Program offers residents in-depth culinary training - and for some, a second shot

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At his wife’s birthday party in 2013, Thomas Ford was so drunk and high on Molly that he accidentally shot himself in the throat. He spent 27 days in the hospital relearning how to walk and talk, and resolved to pursue a legitimate career. From there, he developed Bo’s Sauce, a barbecue sauce line that is available at three stores in the Pittsburgh community of southwest Atlanta. Ford started traveling around the city selling meat off two 10-foot grills. But despite the wake-up call, he wound up in jail two years later for driving with a suspended license. The next morning, a man from the Office of the Public Defender approached Ford’s cell and shared some materials on a free job training opportunity exclusively available to residents of certain ZIP codes. Pittsburgh (30310) fell on the list. Called Westside Works, the program is part of a $15 million commitment made by the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation to revitalize neighborhoods like Pittsburgh, Vine City and English Avenue, among others. Westside Works provides instruction in areas ranging from construction to culinary arts, nursing and information technology. Ford originally selected the cement truck driving track but pivoted to the program’s Culinary Academy after an advisement session conducted by Westside Works’ managing partner, Integrity Transformations Community Development Corporation, helped him hone in on his true passion. In collaboration with Levy Restaurants, the Culinary Academy comprises eight grueling weeks that cover subjects like kitchen safety, knife skills, mother sauces, meat fabrication, food allergens, dietary restrictions and preparation for the ServSafe Food Protection Manager Certification Examination. The course takes place at the Georgia Dome and will relocate upon completion of the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Juliet Peters, a former pastry chef and culinary instructor at Suffolk Community College on Long Island, New York, designed the curriculum from the ground up. “I really appreciate the foundation’s giving me free reign to develop the program,” she says. “My class prepares students to walk into a kitchen with a base of essential knowledge.” No value assignedPeters, whom her students and colleagues call Chef Juliet, baked soft skill development into the syllabus, as well. “I want you to be on time, which means showing up early in my class,” she says. Students must wear a uniform, carry a cut glove, properly set up their cutting boards and sanitation pockets, handle their knives safely while walking across the kitchen and respect their fellow classmates despite personality conflicts. “If I see an attitude developing, I will pair you with that person,” the chef says. “You have to show me that you can conduct yourself in a professional manner.” Many Westside Works students have little or no interviewing experience. Commencement serves as not only a celebration with family and friends but also as a career fair that allows graduates to interact with potential employers in a relaxed environment. The course’s final project requires the composition of a seasonal dish containing a protein, a vegetable and a starch to be presented at the ceremony. Ford’s dish consisted of fried chicken wings, endive sprinkled with salted peanuts and blue cheese and tomato concasse, which he describes as a tomato that has been boiled, bathed in ice and cut to “look like a flower.” Despite his success in the program and Chef Juliet’s high recommendation, Ford had difficulty securing a job because of the blemishes on his record. “I stole some things back in the day, and I got into it with the police,” he says, citing an aggravated assault charge. One of Westside Works’ points of pride is giving students with tainted histories a second chance. “I’ve been wielding an arsenal of employers who look to me as a steady mind with a pipeline of skilled, entry-level talent,” Chef Juliet says. “They believe in what we’re trying to accomplish.” No value assignedFord completed his training in May 2016 and landed a position as a prep cook at Downtown’s Twin Smokers BBQ in September. His eyes well up when he talks about Chef Juliet sticking her neck out on his behalf. “No matter what I do, her name is on the line,” he says. “I would never let her down.” Obstacles beyond criminal offenses prevent some Westside Works candidates from taking advantage of the program — namely literacy. Applicants must read and do math at a sixth grade level, but Frank Fernandez, the Blank Foundation’s vice president of community developments, notes that a staggering percentage of candidates do not meet that requirement. To mitigate the problem, Westside Works has partnered with Literacy Action, a local nonprofit that administers literacy training to people who otherwise qualify for the program. “It’s been a learning process not only to identify but also to remove those kinds of barriers,” Fernandez says. Because of the odds operating against so many Culinary Academy students, Chef Juliet focuses on building skills that will distinguish them from the rest of the pack, like making buttermilk and cheese from scratch. Over the course of Dietary Restriction Week, she addresses how to make a vegan dish on the fly as well as vegan and nut-free pestos, demonstrates blanching vegetables as a method of preservation and holds a veggie burger competition. The chef uses contests to get her students excited about seemingly boring topics. During the fall 2016 session, Atlanta Falcons players joined teams of two students for a dough-making duel. “Linebacker Philip Wheeler, my classmate and I made a calzone,” November graduate Brandi Smith says. No value assignedSmith participated in every extracurricular activity Chef Juliet offered, including tending eight garden beds every morning at the new stadium before class. Those beds, built by Westside Works Construction Ready students, have contributed more than 500 pounds of fruits and vegetables to the Culinary Academy. Chef Juliet also invited Smith to prepare food for the homeless to be served at the Atlanta Mission and to cater a private event at the Georgia Dome. “I think she was testing our ambition,” Smith says.For her final project, Smith presented a crawfish and crab beignet topped with ravigote sauce and served on a bed of crawfish and corn maque choux, a traditional southern Louisiana side consisting of braised corn, bell pepper and onion. Coincidentally, Ford spoke at Smith’s commencement ceremony, urging graduates not to give up if they don’t find a job right away. Smith, though, quickly received an offer as a dishwasher at Superica’s Buckhead location. Under the restaurant’s employment policy, everyone starts washing dishes and moves up based on a point system. “The chef told me that if I prove myself as a dishwasher,” Smith says, “she has a spot for me as a line cook.” Fernandez stresses that Westside Works’ ultimate goal is not to help Westside residents secure entry-level employment but to help them progress toward better jobs over time. “The foundation really focuses on creating a pathway toward greater sufficiency and financial stability,” he says. Both Ford and Smith have bigger dreams. Ford would like to gain experience at every restaurant that Legacy Restaurant Partners, the proprietor of Twin Smokers BBQ, owns, such as STATS, Der Biergarten and Glenn’s Kitchen. Smith’s hopes are threefold: to become a private chef, to teach cooking classes and to open a Cajun restaurant. No value assignedOf the Culinary Academy’s 68 total graduates, 63 currently are working in the field. Since its inception two and a half years ago, Westside Works has placed approximately 400 graduates across the various industry sectors it serves, according to Fernandez. “At this point, more than $8 million dollars in wages have been paid to Westside Works graduates,” he says. “That’s a good social and financial ROI from our perspective in terms of that money having economic activity attached to it and being reinvested in the communities these folks live in.” Ford is one of few people fortunate enough to enjoy his job so much that he shows up early and stays late. “Before, all I knew how to do was be a hustler,” he says. “I have a future now.”

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