By Nanci Hellmich, USA TODAY
Chef Cecil Morris Jr., 46, of Mobile, Ala., knows what it's like to be on both sides of the soup kitchen line.
He was homeless and addicted to drugs and alcohol in 1992 when he entered the local Salvation Army's adult rehab center.
After a year in the program, Morris asked the chef in charge of the kitchen to teach him how to cook. That chef gave him the skills he uses today as the culinary arts director at the Salvation Army in his community, which serves more than 400 meals daily.
Morris now teaches other unemployed people his trade. "I believe this is my calling," he says. "I believe I was placed here for a reason. I'm a light to guys who knew me from the street. They see me now, and they see how far I've come."
Across the country, many skilled chefs at homeless shelters and social-service kitchens are offering free culinary arts courses to the homeless, unemployed and underemployed. Most of the chefs teach students the ABCs of working in a professional kitchen — everything from knife skills to sanitation to making soups and sauces. The goal: to help lift people out of poverty and get them back on their feet.
Although there is no official tally on the number of trained chefs working full-time to serve the needy, there may be as many as 500, and an increasing number of them are offering culinary training to unemployed and underemployed clients, says chef Jeff Bacon, 42, of Winston-Salem, N.C. He is on the board of directors for the American Culinary Federation, an organization of professional chefs and cooks.
Sometimes the chefs are volunteers who become employees, and some chefs are "rebounding" from their own problems and want to give back, Bacon says. That's what happened to him.
Bacon spent three years in prison for drug-related offenses, then turned his life around and earned a bachelor's degree in nutrition and food service management. He's now executive chef of the Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina. He's in charge of the preparation of 14,000 meals a month for various shelters and non-profit agencies and teaches a 10-week free culinary arts course.
"God saved me for a reason from the mess I got into, and I would be greatly remiss if I didn't give that back to folks," he says.
He says placing his students in the food service industry isn't always easy because many of them have criminal records and poor work history. At the end of their first year in their cooking jobs, about 65% are still employed, which he says is a commendable number.
It wouldn't be possible to do all this if it were merely a matter of "human function," he says. "It's divine intervention, every class."
Nationwide, other professional chefs are teaching cooking skills to the unemployed:
•Chef Marianne Ali, 52, a former heroin addict, is the director of culinary job training for D.C. Central Kitchen in Washington, one of the first community kitchens to offer culinary classes. She and her staff teach a 12-week course four times a year. About 500 students have completed the program over the past 16 years.
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