“I’ve been figuring out how to help neighborhoods on the West Side for a long time,” Rick Bayless, the celebrity chef and restauranteur — well-known for pioneering Mexican cuisine in Chicago by founding culinary lodestars Topolobampo and Frontera Grill, and by producing a slew of cookbooks and PBS shows — said in a recent phone interview.
Bayless, 65, saw his opportunity with the opening last December of the Hatchery — the $34 million, 67,000-square-foot food and beverage incubator at 135 N. Kedzie Ave., in East Garfield Park.
The result is Impact Culinary Training, an eight-week professional instruction program that provides young adults, between 16 and 24, with the rudimentary skills to gain a foothold in the restaurant industry, which is currently dealing with a severe labor shortage.
Rob Gifford, the executive vice president of the National Restaurant Association Education Foundation, told the Nation’s Restaurant News in 2018 that in the next 10 years the restaurant industry is projected to create around 1.6 million new jobs, but “the population we are dependent upon to fill those jobs historically will decline by 1.3 million. So if you think it’s bad now — if you think the fight to talent is difficult now — it is going to get even a lot worse.”
Impact Training confronts two problems at once, the program’s organizers said: chronic unemployment in some of Chicago’s most distressed communities and the restaurant industry’s labor shortage.
“Restaurants are in desperate need for staff,” Bayless said, adding that a premium is placed on basic skills and prep work. “We are desperately in need of people to employ. I thought, ‘If we could bridge the gap between those young adults and the people in the restaurant industry, it could be a win-win on both sides.”
The program’s first cohort of participants started classes on June 24, inside of a teaching kitchen in the Hatchery. Their two months’ of instruction will be followed by four-week paid internships at world-class restaurants in Chicago.
“We see this program as a chance to combine the infrastructure of the Hatchery with our workforce development experience, and to bring more economic opportunity to the West Side, stated Steve DeBretto — the director of the Industrial Council of Nearwest Chicago, a business incubator that specializes in workforce development — in a press release.
The ICNC is a co-developer of the Hatchery, along with Accion, a small business lender.
Bayless said that, so far, Impact has garnered the support of restaurants like Duck Duck Goat, Lula Café, Big Jones, Luella’s Gospel Bird and Honey Butter Fried Chicken, among others. The Impact program is funded by a range of Chicago companies, including ConAgra Foundation, Testa Produce, Edward Don Co. and Sunstar Uniforms. Additional support is provided by the National Restaurant Association Education Foundation and the Illinois Restaurant Association Education Foundation.
When he spoke with Austin Weekly News late last month, Bayless said that the program had been well-received by participants — but far from a walk in the park.
“It’s going very well,” he said, adding that he’d received a report indicating that the program’s 20 initial participants had narrowed down to 16.
“I think that’s kind of appropriate,” Bayless said. “Sixteen is a better size group for us to work with. We’re not only training them in culinary skills. We’re also giving them life skills as well.”
And preparing the participants for life in the often cutthroat world of fine dining means serving their instruction with a dollop of tough love and a pinch of reality to taste.
“They’ll start at the bottom, like everyone else, like I started,” Bayless said of the Impact students. “Nobody is given an immediate job.”
The upside of working in the restaurant industry, Bayless said, is that there’s a clear line of ascent for the ambitious, hard-working and talented prep cook, who might envision him or herself as a line cook, then a sous chef, then a chef de cuisine. Or perhaps something even beyond those careerist goalposts.
Bayless, who owns more than a dozen restaurants nationwide and accolades to spare, distinguished himself in the culinary world, in part, by setting his sights outside of the kitchen (he’s done doctoral work in anthropological linguistics and studied Spanish and Latin American culture as a college undergraduate).
Based on Bayless’ example, one possible life-hack to making it in the restaurant world is mastery — both of culinary skills and of a cuisine’s cultural and sociological context.
“This is a craft and you have to perfect your craft,” Bayless said. “In our profession, nothing is handed to you on a platter.”