Vermont Community Kitchen Academy trains underemployed for kitchen work – NECN

A program in Vermont aims to help restaurants find more kitchen staff — while getting those employees out of tough financial straits.

Community Kitchen Academy is a free job training program in Barre and Burlington from the Vermont Foodbank and direct emergency food service provider Feeding Chittenden. The nonprofits explained that the program pairs a chef instructor with unemployed or underemployed Vermonters. Courses emphasize the professional and interpersonal skills students will need to thrive in the restaurant industry.

Jeanine Garella joined the program after losing her job at the start of the COVID-19 crisis, like so many others. She ended up finding a new career path as a sous chef, she said.

“I think if it hadn’t been for the pandemic, I wouldn’t have gone in that direction,” said Garella, who declined to identify his former employer but noted the position required close contact with other people – hence the COVID-forced layoff.

Anna McMahon of Feeding Chittenden explained that the ultimate goal is to break the cycle of poverty. Some students have been at risk of homelessness.

“It’s not just a handout — it’s a helping hand,” McMahon said of the education provided by the Community Kitchen Academy. “It’s a huge stepping stone for a lot of people.”

CKA also tackles hunger, McMahon noted, as meals prepared in the classroom are provided to low-income people in the community.

The Vermont Department of Labor, well aware of the number of hospitality employers in need of workers, praised how the 9-week program provides nationally recognized safety certification. These areas include food handling, knife skills, and fire prevention.

“At the end of the day, improving the skills of our entire workforce is something that is of great value to the state as a whole,” the Ministry of Labor spokesperson said. Vermont Work, Kyle Thweatt.

Thweatt added that restaurants are a major employer in Vermont because in a tourism-dependent state, they often serve as first impressions for visitors.

At Waterworks, a popular restaurant in Winooski, kitchen manager Adam Raferty said he was happy to receive calls with placement recommendations from the CKA.

“Everyone is going through the same challenges right now,” Raferty said of recruiting and retaining employees.

The success strategy Waterworks has used to maintain a strong kitchen staff, Raferty said, is to have a deep bench to create more flexible work opportunities than restaurant workers previously had.

“We have a few guys in our kitchen who play in bands, so Friday and Saturday nights are big nights for them,” Raferty explained. “That’s usually a deal breaker for restaurants – you have to work those nights. Well, we overstaff, so the work/life balance is there.

Waterworks hired ACK graduate Phoebe Laidley-Collias several years ago.

“It fueled my love of cooking,” Laidley-Collias said of Community Kitchen Academy, adding that she wanted mentorship in a creative career after deciding college just wasn’t for her.

The Waterworks cook said she finds great satisfaction in making people happy through food.

“Occasionally people walk by and say, ‘Wonderful food, thank you so much,'” Laidley-Collins said of Waterworks customers waving to staff in the open kitchen. “We love it.”

Jeanine Garella said she is enjoying her new job as sous chef, supporting meal distribution efforts at Feeding Chittenden. She called Community Kitchen Academy the perfect recipe for learning — while uplifting people who were struggling financially or professionally.

“By teaching people these cooking skills and these job training skills, they can go on to do great things,” McMahon said.

Click here for more information on Community Kitchen Academy.

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