Carolyn Mack was barely scraping by on her retirement income from her Social Security Administration job when an ad for a job training program caught her eye.
The ad touted on-the-job training in food service for a new East Garfield Park restaurant. Mack hoped the program would fulfill her dream of becoming a personal chef while putting her on the road to financial security.
“I’m a retired senior woman, and I need income,” said the 61-year-old divorcee who recently moved back to Chicago after retiring from her job in Baltimore, Md. “My skills are scattered. It’s been so hard to find something for me to do to secure my old age.”
Mack hopes she found that security once she completes Inspiration Kitchens, a 13-week training program in basic food prep and food safety. Mack is among 10 students in the restaurant’s first training class, which ends June 26.
Individuals receive restaurant sanitation certification. Job placement is available or graduates could be hired at Inspiration Kitchens, 3504 W. Lake St. Average starting pay is $9.50/hour.
Opened in May, Inspiration Kitchens is the brainchild of Inspiration Corporation. The Uptown-based nonprofit operates several restaurants that provide employment training and job placement in the food service industry for individuals affected by poverty.
The restaurant opened in East Garfield Park, thanks to a $4 million gift from Len Goodman. Margaret Haywood, Inspiration Corporation’s director of training and social enterprise, said He wanted to replicate Inspiration Corporation’s mission in an underserved community.
“We weren’t necessarily looking for the trendiest neighborhood in town or people with the most money,” Haywood explained. “We were looking for the neighborhood where people could benefit from a restaurant as well as the training service we offer.”
For Alvonia Robertson, also of East Garfield Park, the program was a prayer answered. Robertson said she went through several training programs before landing this one. She couldn’t afford to go to culinary school even though she often cooks for church functions and, for a time, operated a snack shop out of her home.
“This is nothing new to me,” the 36-year-old said. “I know I needed professional training … to make it in the food service industry. And Inspiration Kitchen gave me the chance that I have been praying for.”
Out of work for two years from a job as a law clerk, Jovan Wade, 25, saw the training program as a path to self-sufficiency and his own pastry shop. The Uptown resident loved to cook since he was young enough to hold his mom’s apron strings in the kitchen.
“It gives you everything you need if you are really serious about getting into this industry,” Wade said. “It is not designed to teach you everything about culinary arts. But it is designed to get you in the door and to keep a job.”
Training is intense, the students say. They learn knife skills, kitchen etiquette, food safety and food presentation. When asked if the training resembles reality TV chef Gordon Ramsey’s popular Hell’s Kitchen, Robertson and Mack chuckled. No, they said, but they’ll walk out of the program learning the right way to cut meat and vegetables.
“You would be surprised at the changes a tomato would take you through,” Mack joked.
“When you are presenting to customers … it is a different approach,” Robertson said. “You’re not only serving them good food, but you also have to present it in a certain way to be nice and neat.”
The restaurant is more than just a training ground for budding chefs. A mission of Inspiration Kitchens is to provide a healthy dining option for West Side residents other than the greasy spoon variety. The restaurant plans to partner with local nonprofits or schools to provide guest certificates for free meals at the eatery. Restaurant officials also plan to offer healthy cooking classes for residents.
Meals run between $4 and $9 for soup and sandwiches at lunchtime and $12 for dinner entries. Entries include items like cider-braised pork sliders and sweet potato soup. The meals are made with fresh produce and fresh herbs, often grown on a side lot near the restaurant.
The food is a departure from the traditional soul food joints and hamburger stands. It provides a healthier option for a community that suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure, Robertson explained.
“You just don’t to get a brown bag or greasy bag and leave.”
The sit-down restaurant offers an open design with open rafters and can accommodate 60. The restaurant has a see-through kitchen and boasts the latest in green technology. Solar panels heat the water system and its furnishings are made from reclaimed wood. The restaurant is seeking LEEDS certification for energy efficiency.
The design, Haywood explained, is part of the company mission of treating people with dignity.
“You respect people – not just by the way you talk to them, but with the environment you provide for them,” she said.