The cable TV channel, Food Network, profiles chefs and interesting foods from around the country. Well, right on Chicago’s West Side at 4345 W. Division there is a program that the Food Network ought to profile – Oliver’s Kitchen Culinary Skills Training.
The Chicago Anti-Hunger Federation’s program, aptly named for the Charles Dickens’ famous orphan, Oliver Twist, trains unemployed, welfare-to-work and economically disadvantaged individuals for lifetime careers in the food service industry.
The course teaches students how to prepare and present complete meals, from appetizer to dessert. In addition, the chef instructor lectures on subjects including nutrition, weights and measures and buying provisions for restaurants.
Daniel T. Gibbons, the program’s executive director, is proud of Oliver’s Kitchen.
“We do two main things,” Gibbons said. “We feed hungry people, and we supply fresh produce and food staples to our food pantries and soup kitchens. We also have a job training program, Oliver’s Kitchen, that was founded in 1999.”
Oliver’s Kitchen is a 12-week program, whose only requirement is that the applicant is healthy and drug-free, according to Gibbons.
“People come to us from the food stamp office, Catholic Charities, social services, Salvation Army on the West Side,” Gibbons said. “I also recruit at all of the prisons in the state. It doesn’t matter what prison I go to, 75 percent are coming back to the city of Chicago.
“If it cost $6,000 to put someone through Oliver’s Kitchen for 12 weeks, versus the $30,000-plus it costs to keep them locked up for a year, we’re all way ahead.”
Gibbons said he recently ran into one of the program’s graduates at a White Sox game. In addition to working as a vendor at the ball game, he worked the recent U2 concert at the United Center and is employed at a Cajun restaurant.
“He tells me, ‘I sure have come a long way a year ago since sitting in the bleachers when you were talking to us.’ That made me feel really good, because now he has turned his life around.”
The economy has made it a bit tougher for the program’s graduates to find employment. When the economy was doing well, about 80 to 85 percent of those graduating from Oliver’s Kitchen found jobs. Now it’s about 50 percent, Gibbons said.
On Sept. 21, three students graduated: William Burnett, Eric Fritz and Tony Gamble. On Thursday, Sept. 24, three more individuals will also graduate: George Hayes, Derrick Rogers and Darnell Mayfield.