Just past its two-year anniversary, our culinary arts job training program Cooking for Life is on fire right now. It is thanks to chefs in the community who believe in the potential of our kids.
Community partnerships are the key to the success of this program. All across Toronto, restaurant owners and chefs are taking on Cooking for Life youth in seven-week internship positions. Youth are gaining real hands-on experience, some in trendy fast-paced restaurants. Once the internship is complete, youth are then ready to find full-time employment in the field.
“I was just a kid who wanted to eat. Now I’m in a cooking program and going on a job placement and getting a job,” explains a program graduate. Some youth are hired as prep cooks straight out of the Cooking for Life program and earn as much as 40 percent above minimum wage.
Almost 90 at-risk and homeless youth have graduated from this program to date, which is facilitated by our own chef instructor with years of experience teaching at George Brown and running a prominent catering company.
The program includes 10 weeks of training in our in-house restaurant-grade industrial kitchen before students embark on their internships. This prepares them to work in a professional kitchen. Youth are taught culinary foundational skills including knife handling, food preparation, grilling, sautéing and baking, as well as working with the kitchen equipment. All participants earn their safe food handlers certification before beginning their job placements.
“They really help you. They pay for you to write your food handlers certificate. That’s, like, an $80 test. That’s a lot of money to a homeless kid,” says another graduate.
Youth also learn work relationship skills while in our kitchen: teamwork, leadership, anger management and patience. Youth must follow strict schedules to fully prepare them for the expectations of the working world.
Because of the hands-on quality of the training, the program works very well for youth who are not successful in traditional classroom settings. Street kids from our shelter who show a strong interest in working towards a career in the restaurant business are referred to the program.
Forward-thinking employers are taking a chance on our youth by offering them guidance, but some of our youth are astounding them with their dedication and skill. More than half the time, youth are hired on the spot by the same restaurant that offered them the internship. To date, almost 80 percent of program graduates were employed right after the program, most within the food industry. Some of these youth have already earned promotions and are beginning chef apprenticeship programs at their places of work.
“Too many of our kids can only get dead-end minimum wage jobs that don’t pay them enough to live independently in the city,” explains Danielle Neilson, Support Services Manager at Covenant House Toronto. “This program prepares them for a rewarding career, not just a job.”
The majority of program participants are living in our shelter or longer-term residence to ensure they are stably housed throughout the program. Youth are fed lunch every day and receive an hourly wage from Skills Link Canada, funded by the federal government.
Because of its tremendous success, we are exploring similar programs to prepare youth for careers in industries like hospitality, property management or construction.