By Jan Demers
George led a team of six. They were three talented people who were homeless, and three sturdy volunteers. In an hour’s time, they were feeding 61 homeless individuals and families on a holiday when no other agency offered an evening meal.
The location was the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf, run by the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity. The team leader was George Josler, recent graduate of the 23rd session of Community Kitchen Academy, a workforce development program managed by the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf in partnership with the Vermont Foodbank.
Josler is 26 years old. He has done roofing, studied weatherization, laid concrete, toiled at construction and carpentry, and worked in landscaping. He was also functioning under the influence of drugs.
“Two weeks working in a kitchen sweated that right out of me,” he says.
After that experience, Josler walked into the Vermont Department of Labor to find options for his next life adventure. There he learned about Community Kitchen Academy. Though he loved to cook steak and stir-fry, he never considered cooking as a career.
George entered a disciplined 12-week program and was schooled in the culinary arts. He was guided and taught by chef Jim Logan, who Josler describes as patient and creative – a much-admired teacher and mentor. Along with the many certifications he obtained, he graduated from a program that is one of two accredited Community Kitchen Academies in the nation. Graduation comes with nine college credits.
“Cooking saved me,” Josler says. The combination of specialized culinary skills and work readiness training provided through the integrated life skills program ensures that, upon graduation, students will be certified professionals who are ready and qualified to gain employment in the food service industry. Community Kitchen Academy has a recent employment rate of 100 percent.
Josler is determined, creative, stubborn, and doesn’t let barriers get in his way. He is a hard worker who has more energy than three. Out of this 480-hour commitment, he was absent only four hours.
Curry, kale, garlic and risotto were experienced and fashioned into works of art. “Every little dish is an achievement,” said Josler.
Josler believes that cooking can change lives. It changed his. George is now recruiting for the 24th session of Community Kitchen Academy. He will also be an assistant as Chef Logan teaches the next class of students.
What are his dreams? “Well, they may be farfetched, but I think about starting an a la carte restaurant or a healthy deli that serves steaks and risotto,” he said. “Cooking can make you better. There is color, smell, and the presentation that make a dish whole.”
Last week, George made six variations of French fries for the guests as an appetizer while they were waiting for dinner. He works the kitchen from coffee to the dish room.
I know all this to be true, as I was one of George’s sturdy volunteers. You can see him at work if you go to feedingchittenden.org/community-kitchen-academy.
To learn more about Community Kitchen Academy, contact Chef Jim Logan, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jan F. Demers is the executive director of CVOEO.