Bright Idea: Restaurant Apprenticeship Programs Cook Up Pride and Employment for Youth

Photograph of a chef instructing an apprentice chef.

As executive director of Worth Our Weight, a nonprofit culinary arts apprenticeship program in Santa Rosa, CA, Evelyn Cheatham has taught over 100 at-risk young people the skills to cook and manage a restaurant. Youth in the program plunge right in to the food service world. In addition to taking cooking classes and doing skills-building exercises, they cook and serve meals to paying customers every day at Café WOW.

That immersion has led to more than a job for at least one graduate. Last fall, an alumnus of the 7-year-old program invited Cheatham her to bring WOW’s current class of thirteen apprentices to visit the restaurant he now owns.

Gainful employment is an important part of any young person’s path to self-sufficiency, and the restaurant industry is particularly well suited to youth who lack skills and experience but are willing to learn. By providing opportunities to learn the trade, apprenticeship programs like Cheatham’s help youth gain a perennially in-demand skill set that also has relevance to life outside the kitchen.

“We teach life skills, skills you need to cope with every job,” says Luis Arocha, executive director of Café Hope, a New Orleans lunch spot staffed entirely by at-risk young people. “The program teaches work ethic, being tenacious, not letting anyone hold you down, having hope for yourself and pride in what you do.”

Demanding a Commitment—and Repaying It

Arocha’s staff look for young people who are ready to work long hours in a job where there’s always something to do and more skills to learn. In return, he says, “We let these kids know that we care about them and will do anything to help them. For a lot of them, it’s the first time they’ve heard that.”

Café Hope, which is run by Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans, accepts about half a dozen older teens and young adults into its seven-week training program. Youth work 8:30 to 4 every day at the restaurant. In addition, they work toward a food safety certification, which is valuable for potential restaurant employment, and they learn about resumes and job interviews.

Worth Our Weight participants commit for a year, during which they work a four-day week arranged around their school schedules. The apprentices at Café WOW also cater several events a month and operate a food truck donated by Food Network host Guy Fieri.

Youth at both programs learn a host of skills, from kitchen management and regional and seasonal cooking to teamwork and time management.

“Culinary skills are the foundation but everything gets taught around that: math, money management and managing of people,” says Cheatham.

Nurturing Success

Cheatham says her board members and volunteers recruit youth for the program from high schools, local human service offices, and juvenile justice agencies. Arocha’s youth are often referred by graduates of the program, the café’s customers and probation officers.

Café Hope works to place every graduate with an employer, which requires good working relationships with local businesses. Volunteers check with employers to make sure graduates are doing well.

“If they’re at risk of getting fired, we get involved,” says Arocha. “We want them to be successful.”

Cheatham says her program has similar goals. Rather than just making good chefs, her mission is to give at-risk youth a direction in life. “I’m doing something that helps them become a better person,” she says.

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