With the lights dimmed and the Chicago Bulls theme song playing in the background, 18 people were introduced as they walked across the stage at the Greater Chicago Food Depository.
More than 100 family members and friends gathered there Friday to cheer graduates of the food bank’s Community Kitchens program. At the end of the ceremony, each graduate received a white chef’s coat embroidered with their name.
More importantly, they each received a certificate for completing a 14-week culinary job training program. The certificate gives them a bump when applying for a food industry-related job. Many of these students face barriers to employment — former incarceration, poverty, unstable housing. During the program, they learned food sanitation, how to work in a commercial kitchen and cooking skills. They also interned at catering companies and restaurants.
For two decades, through its Community Kitchens program, the food bank has been training adults who’ve had a hard time getting jobs. More than 1,300 students have graduated since 1998. The job placement rate is 90%, according to organizers.
The key requirement for the program is that applicants must be unemployed or underemployed and in need of job training.
Demetrius Newman, who served 27 years in prison, was one of the graduation student speakers. He applied to the culinary program to change his life from gangs to unions. A food service company hired him.
“The best part of this program was the staff here because they believe in us students. They supported us even when we didn’t have the confidence to move forward because we bring to the program a lot of our own personal issues. A lot of us are homeless, a lot of us come with a struggle with education,” Newman said.
Newman is especially proud of his buttermilk fried chicken and fudge brownies.
Sydni Romano was the other graduation student speaker. Romano admitted that, before enrolling in the program, she cooked too many hotdogs and ravioli — and even joked that she burned water one time. During the training she baked a fruit galette.
While in the program, Romano was also taking classes at Kennedy-King College, making for some very long days.
“I was getting up at 5 am, and I wasn't getting home until 10pm. And that was really tough. I’m glad I did it, and I have my certification because now I have a new passion,” Romano said. “If I didn't keep going, who knows, I probably wouldn't have found that I love to bake.”
Now, Romano wants to open her own bakery one day. In the meantime, she has accepted a job with The Spoke & Bird Bakehouse.
Everyone feasted on lunch — chicken cacciatore, lemon chive cod cakes, kale salad, grilled zucchini, double chocolate cupcakes and cowboy cookies -- a fancy name for oatmeal and raisin cookies gone wild.
The meal was prepared by students in the next cohort of program participants behind these new graduates.