OAKLAND -- For students in the Kitchen of Champions program, the prospects are as bright as they are delicious.
The kitchen at St. Vincent de Paul bustles with shouts of "Yes, chef!" and "hot plate!" This is no ordinary soup kitchen. Each of the 2,500 to 4,000 meals served up each week is the result of an intensive culinary training program.
The free, 12-week program serves Alameda County and is geared toward disadvantaged individuals who have had a particularly hard time finding employment.
"We don't discriminate against anyone," said Christine Lias, communications and grants manager. "We have a high number of individuals who have been incarcerated, who are on probation, on parole, and, because of the economy, who are long-term unemployed. This program allows these individuals to get the additional training, go through the program, get that certificate and have that on their résumé. They get wonderful references, wonderful job training and the opportunity to get far ahead."
Production Chef Peter Callis left his position as a sous chef at Google in Mountain View to work at St. Vincent de Paul in his hometown and has been part of the program since July 7. From studying chemistry at UC Berkeley and baking at Cordon Bleu to the kitchen of Bucci's in Emeryville, Callis uses his experience to not only teach students hard culinary skills, but also how to become and remain employed at a restaurant.
Community partner Cooking Matters also aids in training with a six-week course focused on nutrition and budgeting.
"We'll give each student $10 to go to Berkeley Bowl Marketplace and create a meal in an Iron Chef competition," Callis said, "which is really cool because, as staff, we get to come in and taste what the students have created. There is a vegetable emphasis, they stay away from refined food and will cook without using food from cans, and show that your dollar can stretch as far as it could if you bought a meal from McDonald's."
Kitchen on Fire in Berkeley, another community partner, offers students the opportunity to improve skills such as knifing and bread techniques. Other partners like Whole Foods, Safeway, Monterey Market, Trader Joe's and Starbucks provide some of the reclaimed food that the students cook each day.
Although the program is free for students, it costs approximately $3,800 per student every 12 weeks, Lias said. She said the nonprofit accepts scholarships and is also seeking BART tickets for students who rely on public transportation.
Culinary Coordinator Nic Ming said the program also needs more training supplies and staff.
"Another challenge is to be able to have more potential employers, that would be ideal right now," Ming said. "We're working and we have gained a good group in terms of getting better placement after training."
Ming, who hails from Jamaica and is a graduate of Kitchen of Champions, continues to support students as well as alumni. Graduates have been hired by the likes of Google, the Oakland Zoo, the Cheesecake Factory, Brown Sugar Kitchen, B Side BBQ, Berkeley and Oakland school districts, and AC Transit.
As interest in the program continues to grow since its inception in 2007, the goal moving forward is to continue establishing local partnerships, Ming said.
"We want to continue finding more community partners offering jobs and willing to take the risk of hiring someone who has faced some kind of barrier," Ming said. "I think there is some level of hesitation in hiring someone previously incarcerated, but, in the last six to eight months, there has been such an emphasis citywide to really work with the re-entry population. That is very helpful. A lot of conversations lately have been very positive. Some chefs are really willing to work with our groups."
Kitchen of Champions graduate and Oakland resident Kevin Davis, 31, said he plans to bring Gullah cuisine to the Bay Area.
"It's like North Carolina soul food, but with an African twist to it," Davis said of his culinary pursuits. "I've been cooking my whole life, but here, I learned about making sure I do things properly and safely. Not only the cooking, but also the self-development, like how to make your résumé better and build confidence. I've seen my classmates and myself transform from when we first got here. We have confidence that we could go into a place and say, 'Hey, this is what I want to do.'
He said there's also a sense of satisfaction in the work that he performs at Kitchen of Champions.
"Everyday I'm feeding people and they're happy," said the father of twin 6-year-old girls. "I see them on the street and they're like, 'Kevin, hey, that food was great,' and that's the best part of it."
WHAT: Kitchen of Champions is a free 12-week culinary job training program that prepares Alameda residents 18 years old and older for entry-level job positions in food services and hospitality industries. Training is Tuesdays through Saturdays at St. Vincent de Paul, 675 23rd St., Oakland.
TO APPLY: Interested persons must submit an application and attend an information session 10 a.m. on Tuesdays or Thursdays at St. Vincent de Paul.
INFO: For more information, call 510-877-9212 or 510-877-9216, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to www.svdp-alameda.org