The Community Kitchen Academy
It is 10am on a warm September day at the Community Kitchen Academy (CKA) in Barre and lunch prep is already underway. Given this is a class to teach professional kitchen skills, everything is big: 10-gallon pots, 24-cup muffin tins and bowls that take up half the table. Two students in a corner prepare blueberry muffins. Two more students skim the fat from an enormous stockpot on the stove. One student has been given the task of making a mountain of coleslaw and is peeling and trimming carrots. Of all the meals being prepped in this kitchen, it is the carrots that give away the fact that this is not an ordinary culinary program. The carrots are mostly scrawny and a bit dirtier than supermarket carrots, looking like they had just been pulled from the field and quickly rinsed (which they were). The student deftly trims away any undesirable parts and then peels off the dirty skin, revealing a fresh, sweet, perfect little carrot. The carrots have been donated to the program by a farmer who otherwise might have tossed the small carrots or left them in the field to rot. Instead he (or she) donated them to the CKA where they will be used in class to teach knife skills, incorporated into a meal and then placed in the food shelf pantry for a family or person in need. Less food waste, job training, food for a family: Those scrawny carrots sum up the mission of the CKA.
The CKA is a program started in collaboration with the Vermont Food Bank in 2009. Originally operating in Barre, the class moved to Burlington to work under the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf and then reopened in Barre through a partnership with the Capstone Community Action group. The two programs now run throughout the year offering three 13-week sessions. Within each session, the students, under the guidance of a chef-teacher, learn professional kitchen skills and along the way produce five to six thousand pounds of prepared food for the food shelf.
Jamie Eisenberg is the senior chef instructor at the Barre facility. Eisenberg has worked in many areas of the food industry and continues to have her own home-based business selling pies with her wife, Paula. She had taught at the esteemed New England Culinary Institute for 10 years and then detoured away from food for a spell. But when she heard of the opportunity to teach at CKA, she jumped at it.
“We have a two-part mission: job training designed to give grads a basis in food service to ultimately get a job; and repurposing food from farms and supermarkets into wholesome meals. I’m the only chef I know who gets to give food away for a living.”
Dealing with the issue of food waste is one of her favorite parts of the CKA mandate. It is an unfortunate fact that in most culinary schools, there is a tremendous amount of waste. Day students each create beautiful meals and learn the techniques of the trade. At advanced levels there is often a restaurant associated with the school where the meals are eaten by patrons. For the beginners, however, the finished product is tasted and critiqued, but unless the students finish the meals themselves, the food gets tossed at the end of the day, generally because of liability issues. I can attest from my own experience in the early 1990s at the French Culinary Institute in New York that we were forbidden to package up our leftovers to give away. Every day we produced three-course meals that we could not finish ourselves. Half-finished plates of duck à l’orange, boeuf bourgignon and tarte tatin all ended up in the trash. (I think enough time has passed to now confess that my cooking partner, Joe, a big-hearted rebel from Queens, defied the rules daily by packaging up whatever he could, stuffing it in his bag and handing it out to the homeless on his way home.)
At the CKA, not only does nothing go to waste within the program but the operation is an important facilitator to reduce food waste around the state. Of the food that the students work with, 100% is donated from farms, supermarkets and sometimes restaurants. Much of it is like the carrots in the above-mentioned coleslaw: not marketable because of appearance but perfectly good food. However, the randomness of what is donated can make for a challenge in lesson planning.
“I have a laid-out curriculum but there are many changes daily, based on what is at hand,” explains Eisenberg.
If it happens to be late summer, she knows to have plenty of recipes featuring squash ready. On the day I visited, the chef was hoping for a load of sweet peppers to go in the next day’s gumbo, but if no peppers came in, she would simply teach a pepper-less version that still tasted good. Unlike many other culinary programs, her students will acquire skills of flexibility and making the best of what is available.
“There is always food,” she says. “Sometimes it’s lean, but there is always something. It’s a balancing act.”
Even more important to Eisenberg, though, is seeing her students succeed. The students in the schools range from 18 to early 60s. Tuition is paid for through grants and private donations and though there is no direct funding from the state, some money is made available through the Vermont Student Assistant Corporation (VSAC). Eligibility is reserved for low-income people who are looking to restart their lives. Some are recovering from substance abuse or have been released from incarceration. Some have suffered family troubles or illness and are looking for a new skill to find a steady job. Eisenberg says there is generally a 50% attrition rate: The class starts with 14 and usually seven graduate. This statistic clearly troubles her, but she acknowledges that cooking isn’t for everyone. Also, for those struggling to find stability in their lives, merely signing up for the class does not solve all of their problems. But for those who stick it out, they have a 95% placement rate. When I spoke with Eisenberg this summer, she beamed with pride naming the restaurants and food-service places at which her graduates were employed. One landed a job at a five-star restaurant in Chicago. Others were manning a kitchen at a newly opened restaurant in Montpelier. Many of her graduates who are single parents find a good fit working a day shift with the Abby Group, which prepares meals at schools and institutions. In fact, her graduates are so well regarded that Sodexo, another food service company, now calls Eisenberg asking for her grads for staffing.
Suzy Ford, currently of Montpelier, is one such success story. Ford had been a hairdresser for 13 years, but several years ago she started feeling very ill and discovered she had Lyme disease. It left her physically and mentally exhausted, and she eventually found herself unemployed and barely able to function beyond getting her daughter to school each day. After a long course of antibiotics, she started to gain some strength back and decided to do something different with her life. She learned about the opportunity at CKA and thought she might try a career in the food industry.
Though she had no experience in professional cooking, she knew that “Sitting down at the table together and eating healthy food—that has always been important to my family.” Signing up for the course opened a new world for her and unveiled a talent she hadn’t realized she had.
“It was like therapy for me. One of the best things I ever did,” says Ford.
Ford graduated last year but has returned to act as a sous chef for Eisenberg and to assist in getting the food from the classroom kitchen one room over to the food shelf.
“The most exciting part,” she explains, “is to make something awesome and then wheel it into the space where people pick it up.” Along with her part-time position at the CKA, Ford is currently starting up a café in Montpelier with two other partners.
Another one of this fall’s students, Tina Matten, drives 50 miles from Irasburg each day to attend class.
“I’ve had a lot of things happen in my life in this past year and a half,” she says, her eyes indicating those things were not happy.
“I wanted to do something that I have always wanted to do. My children are all grown up and this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
Matten’s true love is baking. Her specialty is cheesecake, and each one of her children has his or her own favorite version that she makes just for them. She has received many compliments on her baking over the years, and friends have often asked if she would ever open her own business. I ask her if she thinks Irasburg could support a bakery.
“It would be the first of its kind,” she replies. She pauses a moment and says, “It’s a thought. It’s a dream.”
Laura Sorkin is a farmer who has been growing crops to donate to the Vermont Foodbank for the past four years.