Samuel Kowalski spent decades driving forklifts and working in warehouses after getting out of the Navy.
There were jobs he did strictly for the paycheck; he did what he loved-cooking for his wife and kids, on his own time.
Last year, he decided to change that and signed up for cooking classes at Oliver’s Kitchen, an Austin-based culinary training program offered by the Chicago Anti-Hunger Federation.
“I figured it was time to do something I love to do, instead of something I have to do to survive,” said Kowalski, 53, of McKinley Park.
For the past 12 years, Oliver’s Kitchen has offered culinary training to people in need, many of whom are low-income, unemployed, or re-entering the workforce after a stint on welfare or in prison. Now, the program is targeting a new demographic with different needs: Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.
The program-billed as a “new, compact culinary training designed specifically for the veteran”-will condense two semesters of coursework into 16 weeks. Creators say that’s ideal for veterans who are eager to get back to work after returning home.
“We designed it for them because they want to get on with their lives,” said Dan Gibbons, executive director of the Chicago Anti-Hunger Federation.
The project is good for the community and good for the organization, Gibbons added, insisting it fills a need for vets, and taps into an abundant source of federal funding.
“It’s just common sense. All these young people are coming back, needing a job,” Gibbons, who spent six years in the Army Reserves in the 1970s, said. “We have a job-training program that is lacking in funding because the state’s broke. The VA (Department of Veterans Affairs) funding, however, will never go away.”
Oliver’s Kitchen is just one of many organizations tapping into a new source of government money for veterans. The 24-credit program, for example, is being offered in collaboration with St. Augustine College, but classes will meet at Oliver’s Kitchen facility at 4345 W. Division. Students will learn food handling and kitchen math skills, and a wide range of cooking. Tuition and fees can be completely covered by the Post-9/11 GI Bill or Pell grants.
Class size is capped at 16 students, and Gibbons said he expects it will fill up.
“I’m already thinking of how we can expand, because there are going to be so many people coming back that need a good, honest living, and in the food industry, there is so much need,” he said.
Current plans include sessions with a job developer who will teach participants how to interview for culinary jobs. Down the line, Gibbons hopes to offer an “entrepreneurial piece” to show veterans how to start their own businesses. Oliver’s Kitchen’s programs have already paid off for Kowalski, who was stationed in Scotland from 1974 to 1976. He now works as a cook at a Downtown Chicago deli. Gibbons believes the program will be appealing to younger veterans.
“There’s a lot of veterans getting out of the wars [and] don’t have a lot of opportunities,” he said. “I think it’s great.”