A new initiative to teach entry-level kitchen skills to unemployed and underemployed people of color has received $10,000 from the city for a pilot program this fall.
The initiative, called First Course, is being developed by FoodWorks — a culinary training organization that some of Madison's most decorated chefs have been working on over the past two years. The idea behind the project is that by providing people in disadvantaged groups with culinary training, it could help address economic disparities in the region and labor shortages in food and beverage businesses.
The First Course curriculum has yet to be finalized, according to FoodWorks' executive director Matt Feifarek, but it would almost certainly encompass basics from knife skills to food safety. It would likely also include a crash course in culinary vocabulary — for example, the "French words" that would likely come up in a kitchen or upscale dining environment.
FoodWorks will partner with the Urban League of Greater Madison and the Latino Academy of Workforce Development to find candidates for the pilot, which will comprise four to six students. The hopeful outcome, said Feifarek, is for graduates of the program to be able to apply for culinary jobs, "and be able to say, 'Hey I know all these things.'"
More specifically, the goal is to find job placement for every single participant.
Feifarek co-founded FoodWorks with Jonny Hunter, the co-founder of the Underground Food Collective, and Tory Miller, the restaurateur behind L'Etoile, Sujeo and Estrellon. Feifarek, who himself has been at the forefront of the slow food movement in the city, said the trio decided to start "a community service organization" after reading "Race to Equity," a 2013 report by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families that outlined stark racial disparities in the Dane County area with regard to arrest rates, employment, and other wellness indicators.
Another impetus for the project was the shortage of kitchen staffing that has been hurting many restaurants around the city.
Feifarek recalls that the "a-ha" moment for him was when Hunter mentioned the food service employee shortage to him. "I was like, really? Well, that sounds like a problem we could solve," he said.
The grant from the city comes as part of its Emerging Opportunities Program, which doles out funding to projects addressing "emerging needs" in the community, from job training to homeless assistance. Forty-nine groups submitted applications for funding this year. Of those, only 15 were approved to receive funding.
The money from the city is only a slice of the funding that FoodWorks will need to run the pilot program: In the group's application for the grant, it outlined a $41,000 budget to cover curriculum development, instruction, and costs associated with assessing the trial run, among other things.
As the group works to raise the rest of the funding, the $10,000 it received from the city will go a long way toward laying out the foundation for the project, said Feifarek.
"We really designed this pilot concept around this grant," he said.
First Course is just one of the programs that FoodWorks is developing. Also on the front-burner is a fully fledged, intensive culinary "academy" for aspiring chefs.
"It'll be much more like culinary school," said Feifarek. "There's so much experience in Tory's and Jonny's businesses, that we realized that an ambitious person who wanted to be a chef could learn a lot from them."
Feifarek said the academy would operate in collaboration with Madison College's two-year culinary program.
On top of that, the group is planning a food laboratory — a space for culinary entrepreneurs to experiment with new foods, beverages, or techniques in the kitchen — as well as a "culinary community center."
The hope, said Feifarek, is to pull the trigger on the entire FoodWorks enterprise in short order.
"We want to be fully, formally operational, hopefully early next year," he said.
It's not yet clear where the various projects that will comprise FoodWorks will eventually be located. The team has been in talks with StartingBlock and Gebhardt Development about the possibility of using space in Cosmos, a new commercial development that's being considered for Madison's east side.
For now, the pilot project will likely be hosted at Food Enterprise and Economic Development Kitchens, a nonprofit space in Madison's Northgate Shopping Center that promotes culinary entrepreneurship.