Homeless train to be chefs: Chicago Anti-Hunger Federation FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Mon, 8 Mar 1999 17:12:43 -0800 (PST)

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FWD  Monday, March 8, 1999


By DEBRA HALE SHELTON - Associated Press Writer

       CHICAGO (AP) --The top chef from one of the Magnificent Mile's
ritziest restaurants leans over a gas stove in a kitchen in a poor West
Side neighborhood.

       ``We'll squeeze this in the cheesecloth,'' chef Robert Nava says as
a pound of soft, white cheese forms inside a huge, steaming pot -- one of
the first steps in his recipe for apple and cheese strudel.

       ``Get a spatula,'' Nava later instructs 16 aspiring chefs surrounded
by containers of sliced apples and pears. ``We're going to start cooking
them up.''

       Normally, Nava is executive chef at The Signature Room at the 95th,
the restaurant at the top of the John Hancock skyscraper. But on this day,
he is guest chef at Oliver's Kitchen, where the Chicago Anti-Hunger
Federation is training needy people to become cooks.

       Nava is one of the program's visiting chefs. The list sounds like a
who's who in the city's restaurant industry:  Hans Aeschbacher of Smith &
Wollensky, En Ming Hsu of the Ritz-Carlton, Mark Baker of Four Seasons,
Dominique Tougne of Bistro 110, John Carlo of Bice, to name a few.

       The students, ranging from 18 to 58 years old, are either unskilled,
unemployed or homeless. All have at least fifth-grade reading and math
skills -- necessary to deal with recipes.

       Wearing white chefs' jackets and hats, they arrive at federation
headquarters eager for seven-hour classes Monday through Friday.

       ``At 7:15, they're knocking on the door wanting in. Class doesn't
even start until 8:30,'' says Mary Ganchoff, the main instructor, who
studied at the Culinary Institute of America.

       Students train as entry-level cooks, but some of their creations are
anything but elementary: shrimp de jonghe, Waldorf salads, orange souffle
and sauces like roux bechamel and hollandaise.

       Today, they're taking on phyllo, a paper-thin dough used in
pastries. Nava lavishes melted butter and a sprinkling of cinnamon on the
layers of dough. Later there would be slivered almonds and, of course, the
homemade, slightly sweet cheese.

       ``Oooh-la-la! I'd eat that,'' marvels student Geraldine Sanders.

       ``This is the best thing that could have happened to me,'' she says.
``I've always wanted my own catering service.''

       Each morning the students get hands-on experience by studying knife
skills, presentation, sanitation and more.

       Each afternoon, Ms. Ganchoff lectures on subjects like nutrition,
weights and measures, buying provisions for restaurants. Each Thursday
morning for 12 weeks, students cook with a guest chef. For the last four
weeks, they are interns at restaurants and hotels.

       Mary Booth, who once cooked at a day-care center, learned about the
program through an employment agency. ``I was a plain, everyday cook,'' she
says as she sliced an apple. ``All of this is new to me. It is interesting.
It is educational. It is fun... .

       ``If I could have found a class like this 20 years ago, no telling
where I'd be today.''

       Michael Grasso, the federation's director of training and a former
regional food director for Nieman Marcus, developed the program. ``I wanted
to be able to parlay all the benefits I received in food service, knowing
it is a lucrative career,'' he says.

       Ms. Ganchoff sees benefits beyond the basics, even beyond ``someone
to give them a chance... .''

       ``We have some people who definitely have personalities and big
dreams,'' she says. ``And I think we're going to give them their recipe for


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