UChicago Local and South Side partners cook up an innovative job-training program

Before the Plate provides culinary skills, job readiness, and a direct connection to jobs on campus

Ashlee White has learned a lot of new things in the last couple of weeks: The proper technique for sautéing mushrooms. How to choose the right tomatoes to put into her first-ever batch of ratatouille (“delicious,” she reports). Sanitation practices for a commercial kitchen. How to talk to her boss about a concern on the job. Most importantly, she’s learned that she might like to be a professional chef someday. 

White is taking steps toward that goal as one of 14 students in the first UChicago-based cohort of Before the Plate, a culinary job-training program created in 2015 by the South Side social service agency Centers for New Horizons  (known as Centers) in partnership with noted Bronzeville chef Cliff Rome, owner of Rome’s Joy Catering, the restaurant Peach’s on 47th, and the Parkway Ballroom, where the classes are being held. 

To strengthen the program by giving participants a direct pipeline to a potential employer, Centers joined forces this year with UChicago Local, a University-wide initiative led by the Office of Civic Engagement. UChicago Local connects businesses and job seekers on the mid-South Side to opportunities with the University and the University of Chicago Medicine, as well as their vendor networks. 

Ashlee White

“The University is an anchor institution and the largest employer on the South Side,” explained Alyssa Berman Cutler, executive director of community development. “We’re committed to building a stronger South Side by hiring from the neighborhoods around us, and by breaking down barriers to neighbors getting those jobs.” About one-third of UChicago’s 12,000 employees live on the mid-South Side. UChicago Local aims to ensure  University jobs are open to people of all education levels and backgrounds. 

When UChicago Dining chose foodservice management company Bon Appétit as its campus dining provider in 2016, a key contract provision required the company to hire at least 50 percent of its employees from the South Side. “With that requirement in place, we wanted to help Bon Appétit hire qualified staff for our residential dining halls and develop our local workforce at the same time,” said Richard Mason, assistant vice president for campus life and associate dean of the College. 

Cooking from scratch is Bon Appétit’s trademark, so it seeks employees with culinary skills, according to Kristopher Murray, the company’s resident district manager. “Without those skills, people tend to drop out after they’re hired,” he said. “I’d rather hire them after Before the Plate and then offer them continuing training” that Bon Appétit provides as a development opportunity for employees who want to advance in the field. 

Centers and Chef Rome have worked closely with Bon Appétit and UChicago to match the training to the company’s needs. Rome provides the kitchen instruction, Centers staff deliver job-readiness content, and Kristie Conklin, UChicago’s director of community development initiatives, manages the partnership for the University. Students earn an hourly wage for three weeks of hands-on kitchen work, and after completing the program–which includes food-handling certification–they enter the Bon Appétit hiring process for UChicago Dining jobs that pay at least $13 per hour. 

Centers helped recruit and pre-screen the participants and supports them with transportation vouchers and child care, plus the help of a case manager, during their first year on the job. These wraparound services “help us ensure that program participants are positioned for long-term success,” said Christa Hamilton, executive director of Centers, “and that employers have the chance to hire people equipped with the full range of skills they require. We aim to help people develop the soft skills like the importance of arriving on time every day or how to address issues with co-workers in a professional way. These are just as important as hard job skills.” 

In just a few weeks, Beyond the Plate participants gain all of those critical skills, Cutler said, and they begin “a journey that can go in a number of different directions, from culinary arts to hospitality management and more. The program positions students not simply for a job, but a lifelong career.”

White looks forward to finishing Before the Plate and beginning the job-interview process in September. “Getting a job at the University will help me pay my bills” and provide for her two boys, ages six and three. And she’s excited about the career path that lies ahead. “In the kitchen, I feel like I’m part of something important,” she said. 

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