Culinary career program a life changer

Professional chefs at one point or another all learn how to make the eggy dough called pâte à choux. Knowing how to make this dough, which bakes up airy and crisp and is the foundation for cream puffs and eclairs, is considered a basic kitchen skill. American chefs refer to the dough as “choux paste,” which sounds like “shoe paste.”

A great wad of it circles around the inside of a 20-gallon mixer inside the kitchen at City of Refuge, a westside Atlanta mission. The students gathered around it, per classic technique, add eggs one at a time, watching it get glossier, stretchier and more lemony yellow with each addition. They’re waiting for that magic moment when it achieves the right texture, somewhere between Silly Putty and pancake batter.

“Who thinks the choux paste is ready?” asks instructor Juliet Peters. One woman half raises her hand, looks around to see she’s the only one, and then quickly lowers it.

“You’re right,” Peters says, “it needs another egg.”

Soon, Peters scrapes the dough into a conical pastry bag the size of a witch’s hat, and the students take turns piping out cream puffs.

The seven adult students have gathered at City of Refuge for this 12-week culinary career training course offered through Westside Works — a program that helps train residents of westside Atlanta neighborhoods in nursing, construction and other fields. The culinary program has been in place for about a year, and students attend it free of charge thanks to support from the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation and Levy Restaurants. Prospective students typically learn about it through their churches.

Peters already has graduated two classes and has placed students in jobs with prominent local chefs, including Linton Hopkins.

Peters left a position running food service for the King & Spalding law firm to design a program that pulls from her classical culinary education but focuses on giving students the best prospects afterward.

“I know what employers want to see,” she said. “We will pay homage to Escoffier, but I’m only going to teach the sauces you see in the real world.”

Her students will not reduce veal stock into demiglace, but they will all learn to make mayonnaise.

“I was more impressed about that than anything we’ve done,” said Jerome Conyers, a middle-aged man who cuts lawns for a living but wants to parlay his interest and evident skills in cooking into a career. “Oil, eggs, vinegar, sugar, salt — it just comes together out of nothing.”

“What do we call that kind of sauce?” Peters asked, with a teacher’s instinct for a good memory retention moment. “Em …”

“Emulsion,” someone piped up.

Some of the students previously worked in quick service restaurants, but only in low-wage jobs without any foundation. Shayla Fraser had been in the kitchen at Taco Bell, making rice and salsa verde, but, she said, “They didn’t tell us the right way to cook. It was more, ‘Just get it done.’”

“It’s a different experience to know how to do things the proper way,” added Keajuana Adams. “We all enjoy being in the kitchen here because of that.”

Peters begins with basic knife skills, teaching students to debone chickens and use every part.

“We wasted nothing,” Conyers said. “We made stock from the bones, braised the leg quarters, double-fried the wings.”

Every bit of the chicken was a learning opportunity.

Peters also brings in foods that don’t typically show up in markets on the westside, so that students will be able to recognize them in the workplace afterward. Just about everyone liked lamb, while they were split on eggplant. But, if an eggplant again crosses their paths, they will know what it is and how to render it edible.

And Peters teaches kitchen etiquette, which she considers just as important as cooking. “Half the key to their success will be in the food, and half is showing how to conduct themselves as professionals and showing respect for the people they share a kitchen with.”

The 12-week program finishes with a food certification examination administered by Levy Restaurants that tests the students in food safety and handling. So far, every student has passed the exam and every one has found a job.

And they all leave thinking differently about food.

“Knowing how to cook a meal and season it has changed everything,” Adams said.

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