To define Treasure Valley-based Life’s Kitchen simply as a job-training program would be a major oversight. While the 16-week intensive program readies participants, mainly at-risk youth with barriers to employment, for a career in the culinary industry, it also does much more.
“We’re here to help them (participants) build up their confidence and their resilience and their sense of accomplishment,” said Jeremy Maxand, executive director of Life’s Kitchen. “We help give them direction and a purpose in what they do.”
Maxand sees similar traits in many participants who enter the program. Most common, he observes a lack of confidence in many of the youth, with a majority of the incoming participants uncomfortable communicating with their peers or mentors.
“To go to a graduation where you see them in front of their peers and their parents, and they are talking about what this experience has meant for them, that’s a powerful thing to witness,” Maxand said.
The process of getting the participants from point a to point b, however, isn’t always easy.
“It’s usually messy, this whole process, much like kitchens are,” Maxand said. “And that doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be challenges in the future for all of them, but I think they’re better prepared to overcome those challenges and bounce back from adversity.”
Providing Idaho Youth With Life, Work Skills for Success
Currently, between the three training business operated by Life’s Kitchen, the café, catering and contract foods, over 10,000 meals are produced annually. On average, 10 to 15 trainees at a time work with the program chefs, social workers, education staff and volunteers.
Of the program trainees, 95 percent are low income and 50 percent are referred to the program through a juvenile justice program.
“A lot of the trainees are the most vulnerable in our community,” Maxand said. “It’s really important they have a safety net and services to get themselves moving in the right direction.”
Many of the participants join Life’s Kitchen to attain their GED, which is provided from Life’s Kitchen along with national professional industry and safe food handling certifications. At the end of the program, trainees oftentimes walk away with over 3,500 dollars of value, all for free.
“They (trainees) don’t have a lot of resources,” Maxand said. “It would be really difficult for them to do what they do here without this level of support.”
Outside of learning kitchen skills, trainees learn life skills in topics including personal finance, health, transportation and housing.
“We are also trying to expose them to healthy adult relationships, how to improve their communication, deal with conflict and do what adults have to do,” Maxand said.
Life’s Kitchen enables trainees with tools to help them succeed on the job as well as outside of employment. Personal character building is a focus of the program, both in the classroom and in the kitchen. With the mix of personalities of participants, the process can sometimes be difficult.
“We’ve got kids who struggle with things like Asperger’s, and other kids who are really high energy and don’t have a lot of patience,” Maxand said. “They clash, and you have to help them figure out the tools to get along in the workplace; because this isn’t school. It’s a training program and it’s a workplace.”
High Standard, Thorough Training Yields Strong Employees
Because Life’s Kitchen yields a product for paying customers, staff needs to pay constant attention to quality control. Chefs are tasked with overseeing the trainees in all phases of their education, ensuring the end product is up to standards.
“We have a great team; they love what they do,” Maxand said. “They’re super talented chefs and they have all worked in the industry, so they know the drill.”
Working in a learning environment gives trainees the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them, without being fired or reprimanded like they would as newbies in a kitchen.
“It’s really critical that they have the opportunity to blow it a few times, and we make sure they don’t hurt anybody in the process,” Maxand said.
To prepare trainees for their careers in the kitchen, each must complete three phases of training.
Prior to phase one, participants complete an orientation, safe food handlers test, and two days in the kitchen for exposure to equipment and terminology. They then go through an eight-hour managers ServSafe course, the gold standard for safe food handling in the industry.
“This is a really big deal because it increases their chances of getting hired,” Maxand said. “And a lot of times you can earn more money if you have the certificate.”
Once they are skilled in food safety, trainees enter phase one, which includes a list of competencies such as basic knife skills, equipment testing, kitchen math and food identification.
In phase two trainees gain specific skills like pastry and soup making as well as fulfill a set number of catering assignments, shifts as kitchen and food safety manager, and café server.
“By phase three they are really ready to help run the kitchen,” Maxand said. “We’ve got new people coming in and they are paired up to help them learn the ropes.”
From there, trainees focus on identifying where they want to work, honing their resume skills and performing mock interviews to prepare for employment.
Community Support Fuels the Growth of Life’s Kitchen
Since Life’s Kitchen’s founding in 2003 by local restaurateur Rory Farrow, the program has seen substantial growth.
Looking forward, future growth is planned through numerous new offerings, including a move to a larger facility in Garden City and the possibility of launching a retail line of barbeque sauces.
A retail line would add to the café and catering services, providing trainees with a food production experience not currently offered through Life’s Kitchen.
“We are always looking for opportunities to add more value to the training experience and create more financial stability in the program,” Maxand said.
For Maxand, having the opportunity to work with the community in a way that has immediate and intangible positive results has fueled his work passion.
“The reverberations throughout our community, when you can help make that kind of change, is really significant,” he said.
Community support for Life’s Kitchen has been evident through willing volunteers, donations and strong participation in the catering and café businesses. This community support, according to Maxand, is a testament to programs such as Life’s Kitchen that believe in order to help people, you have to meet them half way.
“We can’t give them success; they have to earn success, and that creates very powerful results,” Maxand said. “People have to put the time and effort into improving their own lives, and we help them do that.”