At lunch time on a recent weekday, the smells of simmering spaghetti sauce, homemade vinaigrette salad dressing, and fresh-from-the-oven oatmeal chocolate chip cookies blended into an enticing aroma at the McGruder Family Resource Center in North Nashville.
Students in Catholic Charities' new Culinary Training Academy were buzzing around the kitchen, putting the finishing touches on a classic Italian-inspired meal.
"Food is what brings people together, everybody loves good food," said culinary student Denesy Dorantes, 20, who aspires to open a food truck featuring tacos and Mexican cuisine after completing her culinary training.
Dorantes, whose family attends Sagrado Corazon Church, has worked in the food service industry since she was 15. "I like to work with people, to serve," she said.
Dorantes, along with three other women, are about halfway through the eight-week Culinary Training Academy, which is accredited by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. The class teaches food safety and kitchen sanitation, teamwork, communication and business skills, entrepreneurship, and of course, delicious recipes.
"I'm surprised how good it tastes, with me involved," student Brittaney Baker said with a laugh. Baker originally signed up for the course for personal enrichment, to learn how to make better and more nutritious food for herself and her two children. After being in the class for four weeks, Baker, who works part-time as a banquet server at Bridgestone Arena, is considering a shift in careers, possibly moving into catering. "You learn a lot in a short amount of time," she said. "The hands-on training is the best part."
Culinary Training Academy students show off their Italian-inspired meal, which included spaghetti with meat sauce, green salad with fresh-made vinaigrette dressing, homemade rolls, and oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. In addition to cooking skills, students also learn about kitchen sanitation and food safety, teamwork, budgeting, and entrepreneurship.
These chefs "will help us build a stellar culinary program," said Alisha Haddock, director of the McGruder Center and an employee of Catholic Charities of Tennessee. The new Culinary Training Academy is part of Catholic Charities' expanding workforce development efforts based at McGruder. In addition to the culinary training, they also offer hospitality and lodging training and the Sewing Training Academy.
All workforce development classes are designed to be compact, affordable and accessible. Haddock wants McGruder's clients and North Nashville neighbors to "take a stab at something new and try out this career," she said. "We're offering training in skills sorely needed in Nashville right now that can provide a livable wage."
"We want to help people improve themselves without having to go to school for four years and go $200,000 in debt," said Joshua Calvin, Catholic Charities' new workforce development coordinator, who is also based at McGruder.
While the classes will help people get a foot in the door of a new career, Calvin wants people to dream beyond an entry-level job. "I'm really concerned about helping people find their passion," he said, encouraging clients to explore a variety of possibilities within the hospitality and food service industries, and beyond.
Recipe for Success. Students of Catholic Charities' new Culinary Training Academy, Brittaney Baker, left, Denedra Newsom, and Denesy Dorantes, listen as chef and instructor Mark Rubin, far right, reviews the proper storage protocol for kitchen utensils. Chef and instructor Keith Batts, second from right, listens in. The class had prepared a full meal, as they do every weekday, and were waiting for the final components to finish cooking. The new eight-week pilot program, based at the McGruder Family Resource Center, prepares students to work in commercial restaurant or hotel kitchens.
To do that, Calvin knows he needs to convince clients to be patient and work hard to get what they want, teaching them how to "climb the ladder." That might also mean convincing someone to wait before striking out to start their own business.
"Everybody says they want to start their own business, but they really need to realize what it takes," Calvin said. "If you go out on your own too soon it could be a disaster, and we don't want that to happen."
To give people a more realistic idea about what it takes to run their own business, the workforce development classes at McGruder include entrepreneurship, financial literacy, and budgeting components. Working industry professionals are also invited to speak to the students about their experiences, successes and failures.
"It's really about investing time and changing mindsets," said Haddock, who grew up in North Nashville and is excited to oversee all the programming at McGruder aimed at empowering residents in a neighborhood that suffers from some of the highest crime and incarceration rates in the city and has been deeply affected by recent and rapid gentrification.
"These programs really hep people stay out of trouble," said culinary student Baker, who lives two blocks away from McGruder. "We need this program. We need it to stay and grow," she said. "It means a lot that someone is looking out for us, caring for us. We have help and support from the community and we're not just out here on our own."