This metro Atlanta nonprofit is training a new generation of chefs

Zanaya Pullum stirs a sauce as Chef Mimi Bates, program director at the Navigate Foundation looks on during a guided cooking lesson on Tuesday, May 7, 2024. Through the program, students from Atlanta area schools get hands-on training in the field and culinary internships. (Natrice Miller/ AJC)

Zanaya Pullum stirs a sauce as Chef Mimi Bates, program director at the Navigate Foundation looks on during a guided cooking lesson on Tuesday, May 7, 2024. Through the program, students from Atlanta area schools get hands-on training in the field and culinary internships. (Natrice Miller/ AJC)

The Navigate Program’s latest cohort of 23 young chefs bustled around the Prep commercial kitchen in Tucker in a blur of purpose. Amid the flurry of chopping vegetables and folding empanada wrappers, students shouted “sharp corner” as they hurried toward the industrial sink with their knives carefully pointed toward the floor, and the rest of the room responded in a synchronous “heard.”

Zaynaya Pullum, an 18-year-old student from Global Impact High School, assumed a leadership role at her station, firmly delegating tasks to the other chefs-in-training as they prepared guava and manchego empanadas.

Zanaya Pullum stirs a sauce as Chef Mimi Bates, program director at the Navigate Foundation looks on during a guided cooking lesson on Tuesday, May 7, 2024. Through the program, students from Atlanta area schools get hands-on training in the field and culinary internships. (Natrice Miller/ AJC)

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Pullum said she’s loved to cook ever since middle school when she started baking cakes. By high school, she was selling soul food plates to her friends. She joined the Navigate Program because it offered an opportunity to develop her skills in the kitchen, learn from professionals and spend 12 weeks working a paid internship.

Chef Simone Byron founded the Navigate Program in 2017 while teaching culinary arts at Meadowcreek High School in Gwinnett County. Over the years, it’s evolved into a work-based learning nonprofit for young people around metro Atlanta who are interested in culinary arts and hospitality. The program is quickly expanding into other counties and states as Byron and her team of seven culinary instructors train the next generation of chefs and hospitality professionals.

Byron commands attention in the room full of young people as she corrects mistakes and watches the students chop, dice and stir with a careful eye. Pride exudes from her by the end of the session as the burgeoning chefs arrange their completed dishes for her inspection.

Chef Simone Byron, founder of the Navigate Program, talks to students after they prepare chef-driven meals. (Natrice Miller/AJC)

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The Atlanta chef is no stranger to educating. After working for food service company Compass Group for several years, she earned her degree in teaching and got a job teaching culinary arts at Meadowcreek High School. Byron left that position in 2020 to run the Navigate Program full-time.

The Navigate Program currently operates in seven counties around metro Atlanta and four counties in Charlotte, North Carolina. Young adults ages 16 to 24 with an interest in hospitality can apply and interview for an opportunity to be in one of the three metro Atlanta cohorts selected each year.

The Navigate Program is a work-based learning nonprofit for young people interested in a career in culinary arts and hospitality. It currently operates in seven counties in metro Atlanta and four counties in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Natrice Miller/ AJC)

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The Navigate Program offers a step toward answering the daunting question every young person must ask themselves: What do I want to do when I grow up?

As a former high school teacher, Byron said she’s lost students before — she’s seen them graduate from high school and find themselves adrift when they suddenly lose their supportive services and mentors.

“When you graduate high school, that’s your last time for that wraparound service, when you have to be somewhere everyday and somebody cares that you’re there,” Byron said.

One of Navigate’s goals is to connect students with mentors who can support them throughout their careers. And while there’s no expectation that participants must work in the hospitality industry after completing the program, it aims to teach them hard and soft skills they can carry with them into their next jobs, Byron said.

Participants learn financial literacy and professional development, and at the end of their paid internships they have an opportunity to continue working full- or part-time with Compass Group or its partner company, Thompson Hospitality.

Navigate students Tanaya Brooks and Kevin Little prepare a marinade during a guided cooking lesson. (Natrice Miller/ AJC)

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Evelin Castro Lozano, a 21-year-old student at Georgia State University and a Navigate ambassador, joined the program when Byron was still teaching at Meadowcreek. Castro Lozano, who uses the pronoun they, developed an interest in the culinary field after watching their mother work in restaurants for many years. Byron became an important mentor for Castro Lozano, who spent all four years of high school in the culinary program.

“I fell in love with everything about it because it was just so new to me, and there was so much to learn,” Castro Lozano said.

During Castro Lozano’s senior year of high school, they worked in corporate dining during an internship at Coca-Cola Co. headquarters, and they were accepted into several culinary art programs around the country before deciding to attend GSU. A first-generation college student, Castro Lozano is set to graduate in December with a degree in hospitality administration, and they currently intern with Wolfgang Puck Catering at the Georgia Aquarium.

Evelin Castro Lozano (left) poses with fellow Navigate student Jennifer Reano (right) during a shadow day at the Coca-Cola Co. headquarters on Dec. 3, 2019. (Courtesy of Evelin Castro Lozano)

Credit: Courtesy of Evelin Castro Lozano

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Credit: Courtesy of Evelin Castro Lozano

Castro Lozano’s ultimate goal is to open a farm-to-table Mexican restaurant.

“(Byron) instilled confidence, but she also instilled consistency and discipline in us where it’s like, ‘you want this, you can achieve this, but you have to do X, Y and Z to get there,’” Castro Lozano said.

More than 300 students have completed the program to date, Byron said.

Most remarkably for Byron, she’s watched students who previously didn’t “have the opportunity to see people enjoying life” realize they can be happy in their careers.

“You have to cook with love,” Pullum said while stirring the bubbling guava sauce over a portable burner. It’s a refrain her grandmother taught her, and despite the stressful nature of the prep kitchen in motion, she methodically slices guava into thin slivers, plates the finished empanadas and photographs the results of her team’s efforts.

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