Jason Pruett trained as a chef and worked in fine dining restaurants in Chicago before discovering what he really loved: teaching culinary arts at programs like CHEFS. The Conquering Homelessness Through Employment in Food Services program, operated by Episcopal Community Services (ECS) in San Francisco, has trained hundreds of food-service professionals, many of whom have gone on to work for the city’s top restaurants.
Now the director of workforce development and social enterprise at ECS, Pruett said that if half of the students who enroll in the 10-week CHEFS training program graduate, he considers that a successful outcome.
“It’s not for everyone,” Pruett said. “You see people cooking on TV and everybody thinks that they can do it. But it’s a hard job. You’re on your feet eight hours, around hot, sharp things.”
The program also can be challenging for students because of their life situations. “It’s hard to focus,” Pruett said, “if you are having to worry about where you are going to sleep.” CHEFS students work with case managers at ECS, on resolving housing and other issues, he said.
But for those who haven’t worked in a while, the kitchen is an ideal place to practice things like work-place etiquette and conflict resolution, Pruett said. “The kitchen is a tight space, you’re working with other people around hot stuff,” he said. “You have to be able to communicate, not just individually, but as part of a team.”
And the length of the program works as a kind of vetting process for students’ likelihood to be good workers — any problems that they may have with theft or absenteeism become apparent, he said. ECS also vets the restaurants and food-service environments where graduates spend time working in “employment auditions,” recruiting employers who will provide students opportunities to continue learning and to move up in the ranks, he said.
It’s often obvious to Pruett during the students’ first knife-skills classes, where they cut up onions and potatoes, which students already have a natural ability and which don’t. “You can work with students to improve technical skills,” he said. What’s more important to students’ success, “is the desire to learn and constantly improve.”