Recipe for success: Kansas City culinary program helps change lives

October 28, 2007

Culinary cornerstones looks a lot like other cooking schools. In 12 weeks, a trained chef teaches the basics of classic French cuisine -- everything from the ingredients in hollandaise sauce to how to braise lamb shanks.

Students wear standard cook's garb of double-breasted white coats and black-and-white checked pants, and they never set foot in the kitchen without a tall paper chef's hat. They learn the proper techniques for chopping and slicing and keep an instant-read thermometer handy to check for correct food temperatures.

But Culinary Cornerstones isn't like other cooking schools. It's operated by Episcopal Community Services in Kansas City, is housed in the Community Kitchen at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral and recruits students other programs never would consider -- people who have done time in prison or been homeless or suffer from significant emotional illness.

But it's more than that. "It's about redemption," said the Rev. Allen Ohlstein, a deacon who oversees the program. "Plain and simple, that's the heart of Culinary Cornerstones."

Prison time and homelessness
The first group of six students ranged in age from 25 to 54. When classes started in May, there were nine students, but one dropped out after three days, one skipped town, and Ohlstein's not sure what happened to the other one.

Of those who remained, two had earned some college credits, while one spent only a little time in high school. Others had earned a GED. Several spoke passionately about their Christian faith, and one was a Wiccan, practicing a religion centered on reverence for the earth.

Three had done time in prison, and two had been homeless. One said she could have been both but mostly was just lucky.

The group established an easy bond, spending three hours a day in classroom instruction together and another three hours in the kitchen. They referred to each other by the title "Chef" and the person's first name.

They held each other accountable, too. For instance, Donovan got hyper when he had too much caffeine, so the group had to cut him off from his beloved Mountain Dew.

Students are required to find themselves a restaurant internship for the second 12 weeks of the program.

They learn from Jessica Bero, "Chef Jessica" to them. She's a graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America and has experience in restaurant kitchens and catering.

Bero, 26, had to adapt to students with drug-treatment appointments, parole officers and spotty transportation. She doesn't have any specific training for the social aspects of her job, but she says as a single mother she understands students' need for flexibility.

Some students have the reading and math skills of an elementary student, making it hard for them to grasp intricate French cooking terms or calculate fractions, she said. Some can become "almost melodramatic" when frustrated by things they don't understand, she said.

Most of her students learn what it takes not only to find but also to keep a job, and few had ever imagined themselves in a real career, she said. Some develop their technical skills beautifully, Bero said, while others still work to interact with others and "keep their own tendencies at bay."

New donors restart the program
This is the second time ECS has sponsored a Culinary Cornerstones program; a previous version ended when corporate funding dried up. Restarting the program was a major goal of the ECS board, Ohlstein said. ECS found new donors and received a United Thank Offering grant.

ECS provides students with their uniforms and the $85 textbook used in class. It loans each student a set of professional-grade knives and will offer them the set at a discount once they graduate.

Whenever possible, Ohlstein said, they use food provided to the Community Kitchen, where students do their hands-on training. Sometimes the two programs intersect, such as when students practice slicing and chopping vegetables the kitchen can use the next day in its 500 free hot lunches. The students have even catered half a dozen lunches for ECS-sponsored events.

"We've made everything from curry chicken wraps to green chili enchiladas and mojito chicken," Bero said.

Their efforts have drawn rave reviews. People can't believe their meal isn't coming from a high-dollar restaurant, Ohlstein said.

Employers who have hired students tell Ohlstein how pleased they are with their work. The long-term success of Culinary Cornerstones depends in large part on the success of these first students, Ohlstein said. He told them that, too, and urged them to take full advantage of this opportunity.

The students understand that. "The best thing about this program is the chance to move forward," said Andrew. "You're going from nothing to something. Everyone in here has suffered from something. With our backgrounds, other programs wouldn't let us in. This is the opportunity to change. A lot of people don't get this opportunity. Jessica and Allen have given us the chance to move on. It's really beautiful."

That opportunity has its root in Jesus' own ministry, which included reaching out to the hungry and poor, those diseased in mind or body, the disenfranchised and criminals, Ohlstein said.  "Our call is to continue his ministry to all of creation, to all of God's beloved family," he said. "That is the heart of Culinary Cornerstones."


-- Melodie Woerman is the communications director for the Diocese of Kansas and edits its diocesan newspaper, The Harvest.

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