Chef John Lee, our new instructor for our culinary arts training program, Cooking for Life, made sure to poach Theresa some eggs. She had never had them poached before. For Chef John, these little moments matter. “If they want to try something, it’s my job to make sure they can,” he says. “In this kitchen, you’re in a safe space.”
In Cooking for Life, our youth are doing more than getting a start in the hospitality industry. The program gives them empowering life skills like preparing a meal for family, making good nutritional choices or working on a close-knit team.
“Cooking together is an incredible bonding experience,” explains Chef John. “Standing side by side with these kids, I’m connected with all of them.”
The Cooking for Life program has been tremendously successful at connecting our youth with opportunities. The 17-week course includes intensive training for seven weeks in our industrial-grade training kitchen with Chef John and high profile guest chefs from the industry. Then, youth are connected with a local restaurant for a 10-week co-op placement. Many of our youth are hired right from the program or shortly afterwards. In fact, within the weeks after completing the program, about 70% of the youth are employed or pursue further education.
Chef John is a college instructor and a restauranteur. He also has experience teaching clients at CAMH (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health). But he feels that Covenant House provides a unique challenge to make a difference.
“Every kid is different and their needs are different,” Chef John feels. “If they are here at 9 a.m. ready to work, it demonstrates an interest and a commitment. So I have to make the program work for them.”
Mason, a youth in our current Cooking for Life session, has strong potential in the kitchen, but he is quite shy. “He’s such a great kid and a hard worker. I want to find the right placement for him,” Chef John says. He aims to connect him with a restaurant chef he knows who is an introvert as well, but an excellent leader who will understand Mason’s strengths. “I see him running a department someday, but he needs a good mentor.”
“The one word I think of with these kids is ‘courage’. They are the most courageous kids I’ve ever met,” he shares. “I always ask, ‘What am I going to do today to help these kids?’