It’s a test day for students at the New England Center for Arts & Technology, but instead of reaching for blue books and pencils, they’re handed carrots, potatoes and lettuce. “They’re being tested on what they’ve been taught for the last couple of weeks, knife skills—so cutting, julienning, chiffonading, batoning, dicing, slicing,” Paul O’Connell explains. O’Connell, who spent two decades as chef/owner of Cambridge Cuban-French favorite Chez Henri, has served as NECAT’s culinary director for the past six months, working with a diverse group of students at the nonprofit’s three-year-old facility near Newmarket Square. Some are in recovery or transitioning from incarceration or homelessness. Some are looking to change careers; others are at-risk young people who’ve never had a job. They arrive at 9 am, five days a week, at this gleaming kitchen sandwiched between the Suffolk County jail and the stretch of Mass. Ave. known as Methadone Mile to take part in a publicly and privately funded program that provides intensive job training at no tuition cost.
“Our mission is to get people who are chronically unemployed working,” O’Connell says. “We teach them butchery, salad presentation, different cooking methods—braising, sauteing.” They receive ServSafe training and hone softer skills, too, practicing for job interviews and learning to work as a team. “We’re teaching some of these younger kids and people who have maybe been incarcerated about conflict resolution, how you work together in a kitchen,” O’Connell says. “When there’s a mess on the floor and they’re asked to clean it up, it doesn’t mean you’re disrespecting them; it’s part of the job.”
Students also get hands-on catering experience and opportunities to observe working kitchens. “Some of them are like, ‘I have my heart set on working for a caterer.’ Then I have people stage over at Empire with Maria Cavaleri, plating desserts. And then: ‘Hey, I think I want to go work at a bakery now that I’ve staged.’ So we’re opening their eyes to possibilities.” The 16-week program culminates in a capstone project that allows students to show off their skills, presenting a dish during an open house for friends and family. Graduates have gone on to work in dining services at BU and Harvard and restaurants like Eataly and Legal Sea Foods.
For O’Connell, there’s a lot of continuity between his career at Chez Henri and his new role at NECAT. “I joke that I’ve been training 30 years for this job. I always felt like in my own restaurant, I took people who were diamonds in the rough. People said, ‘They didn’t work out here or there,’ and then I’d see them excel in my kitchen after a lot of hard work,” he says. “There’s a lot of people that maybe wouldn’t survive in the corporate world who make it in the restaurant business…. We like to be a beacon of hope.”
Three other programs feeding a need.
Future Chefs helped 285 local youths prep for culinary careers in 2016 with classes, career planning and paid apprenticeships at spots like Saloniki, SRV and the Salty Pig. And the young guns paid it forward, making 1,400 cupcakes for homeless kids, 2,600 lunches for summer campers and myriad meals for other nonprofits. futurechefs.net
Haley House supports men and women returning from incarceration with its Transitional Employment Program, which has a pretty sweet cornerstone: a weekly cookie bake that provides job and life-skills training and paid work making treats for wholesale buyers like Boston College. haleyhouse.org
The Pine Street Inn’s Food Services Training Program, helmed by former Newbury Street chef Frank van Overbeeke, had 125 graduates in 2016. It’s funded by social enterprise catering company iCater, which brought in more than $1 million in revenue last year. icaterboston.com