The third floor of the Center on Halsted is home to many things – a gymnasium, youth programs and art installations. But tucked behind the doors of an "Authorized Personnel Only" sign is a small kitchen where 25 people from all walks of life train in the culinary arts for nine weeks at Silver Fork.
"I call it culinary boot camp," said Nicole Pederson, director of culinary arts.
The program is a 9-week-long course that trains people on understanding recipes, the language of the kitchen, knife skills and front of house responsibilities. Students also have the opportunity to be certified in a number of ways to allow them to serve alcohol and work in the food industry. The program itself is free, and students are given a stipend to pay for shoes, knives, a uniform or other necessities.
Since its start in 2011, Silver Fork has had an employment success rate of about 70 percent, with alumni working in various hospitality roles from cooking in restaurants like Big Jim's to managing roles at Eataly.
Pederson, former executive chef of Found and The Barn in Evanston, is fairly new to the program, having joined in January. After working in restaurants for 20 years, Pederson knew she wanted to do something more than just cooking day to day and saw that Chicago had a huge void for passionate and talented cooks.
"It was important to me to find a place that was more about the community and really about helping and training people," Pederson said.
It's exactly this sense of community and empowerment that the program aims to achieve, said Modesto Tico Valle, CEO of the Center on Halsted. Originally, the program's goal was to provide opportunities for homeless LGBTQ youth to enter the workforce and get entry-level jobs. But when the economy tanked in 2008, an increasing number of adults came to the Center on Halsted for assistance.
Now, the program trains a wide range of ages, from 18 to 65, with individuals from diverse racial and economic backgrounds.
"They learn the hard skills of cooking, like knife work, and being placed in employment, but it's also about the relationships they have formed," Valle said. "Someone believed in them and didn't give up, and it's that person who took the extra step to make sure they had shoes and transportation and the proper clothing. What matters to our students is that they were cared for."
The Center on Halsted is a community center for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning individuals with a goal of advancing the health and well being of the community, Valle said. The center's approach is holistic; for Silver Fork, eventual employment is the program's ultimate goal because it helps lift people out of homelessness and boost self esteem.
"Employment is a huge piece of one's life," Valle said. "If you don't have employment, you can't take care of yourself, get food, have shelter."
A key element of the program is being connected to a network of alumni and chefs who care about the individual. If an individual is late, the student is pulled aside to discuss what could be keeping them from showing up on time, whether this is through working on case management, finding housing or identifying other stressors.
Companies also come in to conduct chef demos and to identify individuals who may be a good fit for hire. But Valle said the end goal is to find someone a career, not necessarily just a fast-food job, and to place someone in a position where a relationship has already been established with the employer.
While the program aims to recruit from the LGBTQ community, the classes are almost evenly split between those in the LGBTQ community and others, according to the Center on Halsted's data.
"It's open and welcoming, and (students) can walk into the building and not have to be afraid to be themselves, and the same goes for the classroom," Pederson said. "Restaurants can be intimidating places, and being able to find a place and learn those skills and not worry about being judged for your sexuality, I think it's a huge thing to have that safe space."
Culinary skills should be accessible, Pederson said, and Silver Fork allows its students to gain those skills without falling into debt, as some people do from attending traditional culinary school. She's currently trying to make chefs more aware of the program so they can hire graduates into their kitchens.
There are a number of criteria that applicants must meet to qualify for the program, among them making less than $40,000 a year, residing in Chicago, completing the application and participating in two interviews. The program only accepts 25 students per session but as many as 120 have applied in the past.
Tara Jones, who identifies as lesbian, said it was a positive experience to go and learn in an environment where she felt comfortable in her sexuality and age.
Jones worked in retail for a number of years before becoming a butcher at Whole Foods. But she suffered a lower back injury from a pinched nerve and had to leave her position. Unemployed, she was scrolling through Facebook when she came across an ad for Silver Fork.
"It's a place that gives you an opportunity to find out if this is what you're looking for," Jones said. "It was comforting for a person like me who is in between and not knowing where I wanted to go in my age."
Jones was 41 when she went through the program in spring of 2013. Now, she is a central supervisor in the kitchen at Eataly, managing all the various restaurants inside the Italian market and food hall.
"I always liked to cook, but for some reason I never thought about doing it as a life. I got there and I was scared because I didn't have experience, I was just cooking at home," Jones said. "(My instructor) just made me feel comfortable, and he gave me confidence on making it all right for me to try something different than going into retail. No one ever has given to me confidence that I needed in that time in my life."
And these sentiments are echoed by other students, like William Howard, whose blog about being homeless and losing his longtime girlfriend to cancer was featured in the the Tribune last year.
Now a kitchen manager at Big Jim's in Boystown, Howard, 51, said the program helped sharpen his knife skills and helped him realize that there were people he could count on.
"There's people there who will always be there for you," Howard said. "That experience in the kitchen, you feel that support that you're able to, through actions, learn how to work with and trust and welcome people into your world."
However, Diana Davila, chef and owner of Mi Tocaya Antojeria, said that smaller kitchens like hers may be hesitant to hire people from training programs such as Silver Fork, simply because the restaurant does not have the time to walk people through real-life experience. People who work in her kitchen, which is smaller than a hotel or larger restaurant, need to be able to hit the ground running, she said, and the experience of working in a fast-paced kitchen is an expectation.
"It's demanding, and it's not for everyone," Davila said of working in small kitchens. "It may seem like it's for anyone and everyone to learn these sets of skills, but applying it to an actual work environment, you find that it's really different."
Davila added that larger kitchens may be a better fit for people who come out of these training programs because there's more opportunities to hone those skills and further an individual's experience in a working environment.
Honey Butter Fried Chicken, which office manager Katie Boyd describes as a medium-sized restaurant with 50 employees, has hired one student from Silver Fork. Boyd said Honey Butter Fried Chicken heard of the program because the owners were friends with Pederson. Boyd said the student has been a great hire and has been able to hit the ground running since he started two months ago.
"It's really refreshing to have a new hire who is super gung-ho and ready to dive in with our businesses practices," Boyd said. "We always say that we will give our employees 100 percent of what they need to succeed if they give us 100 percent of their energy in return."
Pederson said an issue that she sees in many kitchens is that there is a lack of training simply because workers are stretched too thin. However, she believes that because food service is a profession, there should be room for professional training, which in turn produces better workers.
Pederson hopes to build the program's chef-mentor network so students can have a better idea of the expectations of restaurants, while chefs gain a better idea of what the students are bringing to the table. She also hopes to create opportunities for internships, so students have working experience to add to their resumes.
"I completely understand why chefs are feeling (a certain) way but I see the other side of the industry and the complete lack of talent is a serious problem. Unless chefs are willing to change their thinking on this, that's not going to change," Pederson said. "We need chefs who are willing to give additional training in the kitchen and take a chance on people."