Free cooking classes prepare students for new jobs

By Trang Pham-Bui – bio | email

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) – Students at the Culinary Learning Center have spent the last seven weeks, learning basic cooking skills from professional chefs.  But on Thursday, they prepared a fancy feast for a very different reason -- their own graduation party.

"We have progressed so much with our students that our classes are full through March of 2010, and we still have a waiting list," said Project Manager Kathleen Fitzgerald.

The cooking program has come a long way since it started in January at the Prime Outlets Mall in Gulfport. There were only a few tables then, and a couple of burners. Now, students are being trained in a real restaurant setting at the former Mary's Drive-In in east Biloxi.

"This is our new home and we have a full fledged kitchen in the back," Fitzgerald said.

There are other benefits to the free training program.  Every student gets three chef coats, a knife set, a professional culinary textbook, and a gas card to help get them to and from class.  But best of all, they get to eat all the food that they cook every day.

In the final four weeks of the program, the students get work experience by cooking for non-profit kitchens like Feed My Sheep and Loaves & Fishes. They also get paid for working.

The biggest reward is gaining a marketable skill. So far, 127 students have graduated from the program. And 78 of them have found jobs in the food service industry.

"The training is actually designed to help those individuals who are unemployed or have employment barriers.  We teach them a skill for job placement and 95 percent of them have never been in a kitchen or have cooked," Fitzgerald said.

Raynard Willis of Gulfport is looking for work in the culinary field.  He lost his job as a truck driver almost a year ago.

"I've been filling out quite a few applications for job interviews and nobody has been calling.  It's been kind of hard. I would like to try and find me a job in the food industry. If not, open up something of my own," said Willis.

Whether they've been hurt by the economy or still recovering from Katrina, the program helps prep people who want to re-enter the workforce.

"It's amazing to me to see the reward of individuals that feel like 'Wow, am I going to get a job? I don't have any skills'.  And that's what this program is all about," said Fitzgerald.

The Culinary Learning Center is funded by the National Emergency Grant.  The funding ends next June.  The project manager is trying to partner with non-profit agencies to keep the program running.

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