Learning by Cooking

Rhode Island Community Food Bank program celebrates 20 years of kitchen job training

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On a Wednesday morning, a dozen students huddle in a classroom. They wear chef’s whites and furiously jot down the day’s chores: cut 10 pounds of celery sticks, prep meat, wash dishes. Students nod, acknowledging their assignments. Some ask questions.

“How finely should I chop the onions for the tetrazzini?” says one.

“Dice them,” comes the answer. “A small to medium dice.”

This is the Community Kitchen classroom, where novices have learned culinary arts for 21 years. Everyone here is low-income or unemployed, and some lack permanent addresses. All around them, cheeky culinary posters decorate the walls: “Periodic Table of Desserts,” “15 Minutes Early is On Time, On Time is Late,” and “Our Kitchen: Love Served Here.”

“We have a really great program, and we network with the other community kitchens across the country,” says Chef Heather Langlois, a Johnson & Wales alumna who helped found the program and has taught here since the beginning. “There’s a lot of passion behind us. Every class, we learn something that we can change. We always ask, ‘How can we help them more?’”

Community Kitchen is a creation of the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, where classes take place. For 14 weeks, students convene at the Niantic Avenue facility to study kitchen arts, food safety, and professional development. The program is tuition-free, but it’s also demanding: Students participate in hands-on activities for eight hours a day, mimicking restaurant shifts. The meals they create are served at community centers and after-school programs across the region. Many participants have gone on to work in restaurants, earn master’s degrees, and become teachers themselves. For others, holding down a job and paying bills is an achievement unto itself.

“We have very dedicated staff,” say Mev Miller, the program’s life skills manager. Community Kitchen works with a range of local restaurants, where owners are eager to conscript trained cooks, no matter how complicated their backgrounds. “Even though we’re a culinary training program, we emphasize life skills. Employers don’t want to say, ‘Get here on time.’ We work with them on teambuilding and leadership. They walk out of here with their heads a little higher.”

Simple exercises can go a long way; for the first time in their lives, many students learn to formally introduce themselves and use basic communication skills. A favorite activity is modeled on “show and tell,” where students gather in the kitchen, hand out a sample of something they’ve created, and explain their process. During our visit, one student distributes Dixie cups of brussels sprouts, bacon, and cheese – an explosion of flavor. Not everyone graduates from the program, but tactile activities like this help students own their roles.

“Sometimes they don’t want to do a task,” says Heather. “They say, ‘I’ll do that when I’m working in a restaurant, because then it’ll be real.’ I tell them, ‘This is real. It doesn’t get more real than this. If you’re going to do it, you need to start doing it now.’”