ACF Members Serve Up Comfort During Hurricane Relief Efforts

 by Kenya McCullum

Whenever there’s a hurricane, like Hurricane Florence that hit the Carolinas last month, people around the country will see news images of torrential rainfall, bumper-to-bumper traffic on the highway as people evacuate to safety, and trees fighting — and often succumbing to — rough winds. But what they usually don’t see is what happens next — what Geoff Blount, ACF Myrtle Beach President, describes as “flooding of Biblical proportions” that is caused when the waters of five rivers all converge and move in their direction.

“People saw the devastation from a hurricane,” he says. “What hit us here was not a hurricane; what hit us here was all the floods from the hurricane that was North of us.”

And people watching the national news also won’t see what Blount did to help those on the outskirts of Myrtle Beach who were in need of meals and comfort. Since the International Culinary Institute of Myrtle Beach, where Blount teaches baking and pastry arts, was going to be closed, he decided to use the time — and the food delivery that the school received on the same day as the evacuation — to mobilize his students and area chefs to cook meals at ICI’s Conway campus. The meals were then distributed by the Salvation Army and the Red Cross.

International Culinary Institute of Myrtle Beach student volunteers pitching in to make 600 portions of chicken and rice bog. Photo by Geoff Blount

As soon as he put out a call for help on Facebook, the culinary community was quick to assist. Blount received food donations from several chefs, including ACF member Amy Sins of New Orleans, who is no stranger to the aftermath of hurricanes and the devastation they can cause.

“As someone who went through Katrina — eight feet of water in my house, about 12 in my garage, and a resident of the levee break on the 17th Street canal in New Orleans — I knew what was going to happen in the Carolinas if the flood water rises,” she says. “Food makes people feel better, so you always want to get a hot meal in the hands of someone in need. I’ve learned that during disaster situations, that is not easy. The logistics can be overwhelming. Everything from flooded streets, rising backwaters, relocation of shelters to the lack of running water and electricity.”

Loading meals being flown to North and South Carolina Hurricane Florence survivors. Photo by Jay Vise

In order to help make people in South Carolina feel better, Sins worked tirelessly with her network of professionals to cook 1,200 pounds of food in the Second Harvest Kitchen, and arranged to have it delivered by a private plane. This contribution, which Blount and his team were able to use to make 2,000 meals, included items such as hummus, shrimp creole, grits and butter beans. In addition, he received donations from other chefs including 10,000 cookies from the DoubleTree Hotel and 800 pounds of chicken from the ACF Triad chapter. When it was all said and done, over the course of 18 days, Blount and his team produced 15,400 meals that were given to evacuees, as well as the first responders, National Guardsmen, and police officers involved in the relief efforts.

And if given the chance, Blount and Sins would do it all over again.

“Things like this let you remember that there is something about our humanity that is still good,” Blount says. “We’re not all just looking out for ourselves, we are trying to look out for each other and help each other. Sometimes I know that’s in question, when people are just mean and rude, but then something like this happens and you see a community come together.”

A Recipe for Success: Prison Culinary Training Programs Change Lives and Provide a Second Chance

 by Kenya McCullum

Vito Scarola admits that his life was going nowhere — except to prison.

“When I got there, I had no job experience, no life skills, nothing,” he explained. “I was just an untrained convict — that’s the only way I can really put it. I had nothing going for me at all.”

But while he was serving his sentence for burglary charges that stemmed from his drug abuse, Scarola found his direction and purpose when he got the opportunity to receive culinary training provided by Bridges of America, a re-entry program for offenders that builds a bridge between incarceration and a successful release through job training and therapeutic services.

“I was just super excited to be given a chance to learn something useful — most people don’t get that opportunity. That was a big deal for me,” Scarola says. “I actually worked seven days a week, pretty much all day in the kitchen and just tried to learn anything and everything I could.”

And learn he did. Since his release in 2011, Scarola has gone on to work his way up in his culinary career from a dishwasher to a managerial position. He is also married with two children, and is currently earning his second college degree. To this day, he credits all of his professional, personal, and educational successes to the training he received from Culinary Instructor and Chef Mike Schnitzer at the Orlando Bridge.

“When you get released from prison in Florida, you basically get a $50 bus ticket and a kick in the butt. What are you going to do if you get released from prison and you have no skills? You basically go back to your old bad habits and bad ways,” says Schnitzer. “Our program is designed for clients that have no job skills at all. We give them job skills so that when they’re eligible for work release, they can get meaningful employment.”

Bridges accomplishes this by providing 1,000 hours of culinary training over the course of six months. During that time, students learn a variety of skills — such as ordering and receiving food, kitchen sanitation, hot and cold meal preparation, knife skills and food storage — which culminate in an ACF certification at the end of the program. In addition, the program also requires treatment for drug and alcohol addiction, and life skills classes. After successful completion of the requirements, clients are eligible for work release so they can apply the skills they learned to a real-world kitchen during the day and go back to the facility at night. In addition to building work experience, the clients also earn money that provides a financial cushion for them to use when they go back home.

“When clients get released, they have thousands of dollars in their account,” Schnitzer says. “They don’t get just a kick in the butt and get shoved out the door. They leave with a skill and this money in their account — and they already have a job.”

Ryan Stanley CC, CEPC during his CEPC exam.

Similarly, people who have completed the culinary program at Reality House have also been able to get a job and turn their lives around, as well as receive the addiction treatment they need to live a clean and sober lifestyle.

“One of our clients stated that when he first went to prison, he had never accomplished anything. He went to prison for drug charges and he said he had never accomplished anything, he was never anybody,” said Kirk Kief, Executive Chef and Culinary Instructor at Reality House. “When he left, he said that his self-confidence was 180 degrees from what it was when he went into prison because he not only went into the culinary program, but he also earned his Certified Culinarian and went for a Certified Pastry Culinarian. He’s now the general manager of a very successful local franchise here in town.”

Similar to Bridges of America, Reality House provides an intensive, eight month culinary program that allows clients to receive a certification after completing classes designed to prepare them to work in a kitchen. To help reinforce this training, when clients are eligible for work release, they have the opportunity to get a job with the organization’s numerous local partners.

Reality House’s the final three clients to earn ACF certification — all of whom passed two certification exams. (left to right) Vance Hennion CC, CPC, Jason Brugos CC, CPC, and William Sands CC, CPC

“We have partnered with over 250 different organizations in the community. We have a strong footprint in our community in regards to our reputation and we use it to our advantage to get the guys hired at different organizations,” says Andrew Williams, Reality House’s Senior Director of Residential Services. “The reason we have such a good rapport with the restaurants here in town is because guys from our facility that are going out and applying for jobs have gone through at least eight to nine months of not only culinary training, but also substance abuse training and classes on how to act in public and make good decisions. It isn’t like the restaurants are hiring people straight out of prison with no background. They’ve gotten this education and they’re a different type of person than what they would be coming straight out of prison.”

Re-Entry Programs Face an Uncertain Future

Despite the successes of Bridges of America and Reality House, the Florida Department of Corrections has made a decision that could negatively impact not only the lives of inmates struggling with addiction issues, but the community as a whole. In June, budgetary cuts were made that discontinued contracts with private inmate transition and addiction treatment programs and led to hundreds of layoffs around the state. As a result, the substance abuse treatment and culinary training that inmates were able to receive before their release are no longer available.

“The Department of Corrections chose to eliminate the programs that had the most impact for the clientele, which in my opinion, was not a wise decision,” Williams says. “We are the reason why the Department of Corrections’ numbers were going down in terms of their recidivism rate.”

Even though the current state of these programs is discouraging, there is still hope. When Florida elects a new governor in November, it is expected to result in the appointment of a new Secretary for the Department of Corrections — and possibly a reinstatement of the contracts that allowed Reality House and Bridges of America to provide culinary training and drug treatment services. In the meantime, these organizations are working with lobbyists to demonstrate the importance of the services they provide and the impact they have on the entire state.

“You don’t want people leaving prison the same way they came in. You want to give these inmates the opportunity to be productive citizens,” says Williams. “That’s what our culinary program was doing. We were putting our guys in a position to be successful in terms of getting jobs—and not just a flipping hamburger job; these guys were getting career jobs and were giving back in regards to hiring our clientele.”

Summer camp inspires high schoolers to enter the culinary field

by Jocelyn Tolbert

Chicago’s Kendall College Trust (KCT), an independent 501 (c) (3) not-for-profit providing need-based financial support to students pursuing degrees in hospitality and culinary arts, is in the middle of its third summer of Culinary Camp.

KCT’s summer camp introduces culinary skills to high school students in impoverished areas of Chicago, sparking interest in future careers. Helmed by Executive Director Catherine De Orio, the camp builds meaningful relationships, forging connections at a pivotal time in students’ lives.

“We thought, ‘How can we make more of an impact? When does that spark happen?’ You see it in high schoolers. They have a lot of passion, but the thing at that age is if someone isn’t supporting your dreams, it’s easy for them to fizzle out. Because kids are kids. They need that support and someone fanning that passion,” De Orio says. “So we thought, ‘Why don’t we find students who have an interest in this and get them to a culinary camp?’ They can come to the college and see what a career in this would mean, and hopefully we can get them on a vocational track.”

They found their students by working with Careers through Culinary Arts Program and the Chicago Public School System. Students like Malik Waddy, who’s currently a student at University of Chicago Charter School in Woodlawn where he will be a junior.  “My passion for the culinary industry was sparked when I was seven years old and started cooking with my grandfather,” he says. “When I was presented with the opportunity to enroll in KCT’s summer culinary camp, I knew it would be a great way to enhance my culinary skills and bring me closer to pursuing my dream of becoming a chef.”

Following last year’s flourishing summer program, this year 72 students have the opportunity to stay in Kendall College dorms and get their feet wet in the culinary world, from learning behind-the-scenes restaurant operations to advanced cooking and baking skills, mimicking the real-life experiences they would get if they chose to attend college.

“Most camps tend to be day camps. The evening, overnight camp element, and adding in the cultural element, is what sets us apart. … Many kids come from broken or single-parent homes. The parent is working, so one kid will take on a caregiver role because they’re the oldest one in the house. It’s nice for them to be able to not be an adult for a week,” De Orio says. “They can come to the college and see what a career in this would mean, and hopefully we can get them on a vocational track. Once they’re there, they’re part of our family and we can help with scholarship funding.”

There are two sessions, one beginner for freshmen and sophomores, and one advanced, for juniors and seniors. The beginner session courses cover basic cooking, baking and pastry, nutrition, butchery, knife skills, sanitation, use of equipment, and kitchen terminology, as well as some aspects of hospitality and front of house. The advanced session brings together soon-to-be seniors to learn expert culinary skills including professional knife cuts, cooking methods and butchery. A nutritional element is also incorporated into the program, teaching students the ins and outs of micro and macro-nutrients, serving sizes and disease prevention.

Waddy is attending culinary camp for his second year in a row. He was enrolled in the “Taste of the Kitchen” introductory session last summer, and this year attended the advanced session. He will also participate in KCT’s second advanced session during the week of July 16. “It has been an incredible experience, and has given me the confidence and skill set to attend culinary school once I graduate and eventually open a Caribbean restaurant of my own,” he says.

In addition to the classes, students have the opportunity to embark on cultural excursions in the evenings.

“To get to know the other kids better, they do an activity. They might do iFLY, which is indoor skydiving. We also take them to a Broadway in Chicago play. they went to the fireworks at navy pier,” says De Orio. “Most of our kids are from around Chicago but have never been to the lakefront or downtown. … We want it to be fun.”

While KCT’s program is small, it’s not just helping the Chicago at-risk youth community. Camps and programs like this are helping to build the culinary community as well.

“You’re hearing it across the board. There’s a shortage of workers in the industry. [Because of programs like ours,] you can get a student who can come in after high school — they’re not being schooled on basic knife techniques and cuts of meat. They’re not learning cooking techniques for the first time. they can pick things up quicker. That is definitely going to help the industry,” De Orio says. “We raise scholarships for higher education. But the reality is, some students don’t have the desire to go to college. They just want to get into the workforce. This allows them to do that.”

The first two sessions of Culinary Camp took place from June 25 to 29 including a Basic and Advanced group. The third session for Advanced students takes place July 16 to 20, rounding out the program.

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LGBT Community is Welcome in Culinary Industry

A half a dozen or so chefs don’t make a scientific survey. But when they represent different segments of the culinary industry and work in various parts of the country, it is possible to make a tentative assumption. And that is while members of the LGBT community may be fighting for acceptance in some areas, the culinary industry doesn’t seem to be one of them.

The chefs and restaurateurs we’ve talked to have found the industry open and welcoming. Since our sample was small, your experience might be different. If so, please let us hear from you. (Email

Jose Martinez, for example, is executive chef at Woodward Academy North in Atlanta. He’s also personal chef for a family in Buckhead, an upscale Atlanta neighborhood. When he was interviewing for the job at Woodward, his sexual orientation did not come up. Nor should it have. Asking such questions is against the law. In the six years that he has been at Woodward, Martinez has taught leadership classes and interacted regularly with the faculty, staff and even the prestigious private school’s president.

“I just try to be myself,” he says. “Most people can’t tell that I’m gay.” If questions come up, though, he’s honest.

“Sometimes people will ask if I have a girlfriend. My answer is, ‘No and I never will. I’m gay,’” he replies. “Most people are cool with that.”

He does note, however, that males in the kitchen can sometimes talk a little rough about the LGBT community.

Bari Musacchio, owner of New York City’s Baz Bagel & Restaurant, a deli/diner offering an array of Jewish specialties, agrees that is sometimes the case. “Sometimes men in the kitchen can get a little macho.” Nevertheless, she has never had any problems as a lesbian restaurant owner or when she worked in other restaurants.

Musacchio believes there are more lesbian chefs than gay ones and that the front of the house opened the gates to gays and lesbians in the restaurant industry.

“Half our front of the house staff is gay,” she says. “I can’t think of any restaurant where there aren’t gays in the front of the house.”

The number of gays and lesbians in the front of the house may be an indication of an accepting restaurant clientele. Who is serving or cooking doesn’t seem to be an issue with restaurant patrons.

Chris Trapani is the transgender chef/owner of Urban Cowboy food truck and catering in Austin, Texas. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, where he lived for 30 years, Trapani worked in casual restaurants, fine dining rooms and catering companies before opening his own business. He got free publicity for his business by being the first transgender chef to appear on the Food Network. “I was worried that the show might hurt my business.”

It didn’t. After the program aired in August 2013, Trapani had 1,000 hits on his website. His business doubled and has continued to increase for the past three years.

“It shows me how far we have come with acceptance,” he says.

Trapani believes self-confidence is the key to acceptance in the kitchen. “Before I transitioned it was harder for me to be taken seriously in the kitchen because I had my own issues.” Like Musacchio, he also believes customers care more about the food than who is cooking it.

“If someone has a problem with who or what I am, then I don’t want to cook for them anyway,” he says.

Customers don’t care that Jay Qualls, owner of Frosted Affair in Nashville, Tennessee, is gay. They do care that he was named one of 2015’s top ten cake artists in North America by Dessert Professional magazine. They go to his shop for his cakes, not his lifestyle.

Qualls is a career changer, working first in health care. “I took control of my own destiny and opened a bakery.” It was a good move for him. “The culinary industry is diverse and absolutely open to the LGBT community,” he says.

Noting that he has never experienced any discrimination, he believes that in the culinary world you can be “whoever you want and love whoever you want.” He proved that recently by getting married to his partner. And yes, he baked the cake.

“My orientation does not define who I am as an entrepreneur,” he says.

Susan Feniger is widely recognized by her colleagues as a great chef and a successful entrepreneur. The celebrity chef owns and co-owns restaurants in California and Las Vegas. The fact that she is a lesbian never comes into play. “I’ve never had any issues – not in the kitchen, with the media, or on TV. But, I’ve always been fairly well respected as a chef and restauranteur. That probably helped.”

Feniger’s restaurant kitchens are open to everyone who has the talent to be there.

“It’s an employer’s responsibility to treat all people equally and to be open and accepting of everyone regardless of their race, color or sexual orientation,” she says.

By Suzanne Hall

Congrats to ACF Central Region Competition Winners

Chefs and students from across the Central region gathered at the American Culinary Federation (ACF) Central Regional Culinary Salon to battle it out for ACF’s annual regional awards March 11-13 at Culinary Institute of St. Louis at Hickey College, St. Louis. Four competitions took place at the salon to determine who would receive ACF’s Central region titles for Chef of the Year, Pastry Chef of the Year, Student Chef of the Year and Student Team Regional Championship.

The following ACF Central region competition award winners will compete for their respective national titles at Cook. Craft. Create. Convention & Show, Phoenix, July 15-19.

ACF Central Region Chef of the Year, sponsored by Unilever Food SolutionsPatrick Mitchell, CEC, AAC, of Grapevine, Texas, is executive chef/culinary adviser at Ben E. Keith Foods, Fort Worth, Texas.

ACF Central Region Pastry Chef of the Year, sponsored by Plugrá® European-Style ButterJan Lewandowski, CEPC, of Little Rock, Arkansas, is lead baking instructor at Pulaski Technical College Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management Institute (PTC-CAHMI), Little Rock.

ACF Central Region Student Chef of the Year, sponsored by Custom Culinary®Shayne McCrady, of Maplewood, Missouri, is sauté cook/line cook at The Gatesworth at One McKnight Place, St. Louis.

ACF Central Region Student Team Championship, sponsored by VitamixACF Greater Kansas City Chefs Association; students from Johnson County Community College, Overland Park, Kansas.

Team members Ashley Hunt (alternate) , Heather Goodenow, Felipe Padilla, Gabrielle Edrosa and Rocio Ramos (captain) competed against nine other teams for the title. Felix Sturmer and Edward Adel, CEC, coached.

Thank you to all competitors, judges and guests who attended!