Cooking Up A Plan For The Future

When Mr. Ernest James, a resident at VOADV’s Hope Hall, arrived for his interview to be a line cook at a local Burger King, he had something that immediately put him a step above other applicants – a certificate from Cathedral Kitchen’s Culinary and Baking Arts Employment Training Course. Knowing the reputation of the program and the well-prepared graduates it produces, the restaurant immediately offered Mr. James a manager position.

Mr. James, and other recent Cathedral Kitchen graduates Mr. Clary and Mr. Smith, are all residents of VOADV’s Hope Hall, one of two Residential Community Release Programs (RCRPs) for men. Along with Fletcher House and Garrett House for women, our RCRPs offer a transitional setting for individuals recently released from prison, and supports their reintegration into the community. Hope Hall provides 175 beds to residents, as well as case management, college and career coaching, substance use treatment and more. The facility often welcomes programs and organizations like Cathedral Kitchen to share resources and information with the men, which is how they learned about the culinary opportunity.

The Culinary and Baking Arts Employment Training Course is a 15-week commitment that includes classroom instruction in culinary arts, use of commercial kitchen equipment, large quantity food production, ServSafe certification, and life skills like financial literacy and interview preparation. The program specifically focuses on recruiting in the Camden area and does not charge for tuition or supply costs. Over 86% of participants find employment in the first three months of graduating.

While applying for the training program was clearly a great opportunity to secure employment now, and in the future, it also closely aligned with Mr. James’ passions. He started cooking with his family as a young child and made his first big meal at age 13.

“I had some skills and knew how to cook previously,” said Mr. James. “But Cathedral Kitchen took it to the next level – we learned how to filet fish, how to debone chicken, the five mother sauces, anything you could think of.”

Similarly, Mr. Thomas Clary entered the program with a culinary background and passion for cooking. He formerly worked as a dish washer and line cook, as well as in the kitchen while incarcerated. Upon his release, Mr. Clary knew he wanted to continue in the culinary arts. He applied for Cathedral Kitchen’s course at the urging of Hope Hall Operations Director, Earle Sims-Brown.

“Ms. Brown saw that I already had a lot of culinary skills and the enthusiasm for it and told me about the program. Her recognizing that definitely gave me more motivation to work hard in the course and do well,” said Mr. Clary.

Self-motivation and dedication were keys to Mr. Clary’s success. He was able to adjust his work schedule to participate in the course, and could be found studying during his breaks.

That commitment certainly paid off, and Mr. Clary was awarded the “Hardest Worker” certificate at the graduation ceremony. As a result of achieving ServSafe Proctor status, he was quickly offered a position as a cook and teacher at Cathedral Kitchen, where he is a role model to others. His future plans include leveraging his education to open a food truck and returning to school to become a dietary technician – goals he has already started working towards at Hope Hall.

Both men know that being connected to Cathedral Kitchen’s Culinary and Baking Arts Employment Training Course is a special opportunity, and are encouraging other Hope Hall residents to apply.

“Everybody here wants to be in the program now that they’ve seen our success and heard our stories,” said Mr. James. “I’m so thankful for it because it is a career. I say, if you get the opportunity – go for it.”

Mr. Clary echoes the significance of 15 weeks of training and hard work that has provided him a lifetime of opportunity, and how important the course can be for an often underserved population. Born and raised in Camden City, he wants to serve as an example to others who could benefit from this program.

“For people in Camden – give yourself the chance and the opportunity and you will grow,” said Mr. Clary. “Step outside yourself.”

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