After losing her job at The Art Institute of Chicago almost three years ago, Valerie Wilmington started fostering children, but she still missed working.
“If you’ve worked all your life, you need to feel productive,” she said.
As she sought work, she said her biggest obstacle was her age: “Surely, I could find a waitress job . . . but jobs are hard no matter what walk of life you’re in. Let’s face it, I’m not quite hirable. They’d rather have a young waitress.”
A long job search finally ended when Wilmington was hired at Inspiration Kitchens in Garfield Park.
The restaurant at 3405 W. Lake St. is the newest addition for the Inspiration Corp., which was founded by Lisa Nigro over 20 years ago in the Uptown neighborhood to help people struggling with homelessness.
The 80-seat restaurant, which opened in May, serves as a second on-site culinary training program for community members looking to re-enter the workforce.
Wilmington says having the restaurant in the area brings something special for those who are “the working poor.” The diversity among those who dine at the Kitchen and come through the program “makes for beautiful living,” she said.
Although she doesn’t receive tips because patrons are asked to make a donation, Wilmington said it’s better.
“The concept is just awesome,” she said. “Just to know that you’re working for a place, for lack of a better word, paying it forward. It’s helping so many, so many people.”
Avil Greenberg joined Inspiration Kitchens as general manager in December. With years of experience in the restaurant industry and her community health background, Greenberg says it’s the perfect position for her.
“I get to do something really meaningful in my life,” she said. “And run a restaurant with great people.”
Greenberg said a majority of the program’s participants have “barriers to employment” and suffered setbacks.
Participants receive 13 weeks of intensive job skill training. At the Uptown location, trainees have four weeks of training and an internship. At Garfield Park, from day one, trainees are started in the kitchen. They also learn basic job skills, such as writing resumes, conflict resolution and team work.
Applicants should have a desire and passion to be in the culinary field, but the program accepts those who seek to be a part of the workforce and want to change their lives, said Greenberg.
The initial application process requires applicants to meet with a case manager to assess if they can handle the intensive program and if there are any barriers to finishing. They are also given a simple math test.
“We don’t like people starting and not having them feel great because there are so many things going on in their life that they can’t finish,” said Greenberg. “We want people to succeed.”
Next to the Green line Central Park stop, diners can enjoy familiar sides such as fried green tomatoes to dinner entrees, including Oxtail empanadas with a romesco sauce.
Executive Chef David Rosenthall said as he created the menu, he kept in mind that Garfield Park is a food desert, so he wanted to strike a balance between the familiar while not competing with area restaurants.
“People have a mindset of what this should be,” he said. “And whether it’s good or not, it’s not what it should be. And I don’t want to mess with that. So I try to make variations on things, keeping all the ingredients in there, but how they’re put in there and how they’re cooked might be a little different, so it’s still accessible.”
After finishing a two-year prison term and getting a referral from his best friend to the Uptown program, Pierre Johnson completed the program – and moved on from his old life.
“Getting into the program really helped me out a lot. It started getting me back on my feet,” said Johnson.
He also credits his 2-year old son with keeping him focused on his goal of becoming a chef. The Dunbar Vocational Career Academy graduate majored in culinary arts but said he didn’t pursue his dream due to the lack of funds.
“When I came home from prison, I wanted to have a family, I wanted to have a kid,” he said. “And I’ve really stayed on track.
“Besides, I’m doing something good. This whole program here is about helping out. Of course, it’s a longer story than that but at the end of the day, it’s helping out.”