Every morning at 9 a.m., the students at Boston’s New England Center for Arts and Technology (NE-CAT) line up for their daily check-in. They wear crisp white chef coats and small orange or black caps that mark them as students in the Center’s culinary arts training program. They stand at attention, prepared for a day spent chopping, sautéing, and stirring—honing the skills to secure a position in the growing food industry.
But these students are not just trying to land a new job, they’re shaping a new life.
“You get to find yourself,” said recent center graduate Julia Ramesar, a former pharmacy employee who now aspires to open her own catering business. “As long as you have the courage, the drive, and the confidence, you’ll find yourself.”
NE-CAT trainees are mostly drawn from the surrounding neighborhoods of Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan, some of Boston’s most disadvantaged areas. About 80 percent come to the program after a stretch of unemployment lasting an average of two years. One-third have been incarcerated and one-fifth are homeless or live in transitional housing.
“They definitely have significant barriers to stable employment,” said Ashley Bartell, the center’s director of development. “We see such a profound change in the students from the time they enter to the time they graduate.”
Program alumni have gone on to jobs at local food business incubators, restaurants, private clubs, and some of the city’s most upscale hotels. Celebrity chef Ming Tsai, owner of two acclaimed Boston-area restaurants, has a few NE-CAT graduates on staff.
“I am proud that we have the opportunity to hire NE-CAT graduates just as much as I am grateful to have them here, cooking on the line,” Tsai said.
The program was launched in 2013 to help unemployed Boston residents train for new careers while also addressing a staffing shortage in the city’s restaurants and food service businesses. Funded mostly by grants from private foundation, the program is entirely free to participants, in the hope they will be able to launch new careers without the burden of student loans.
Cohorts of 24 trainees work their way through the training at once. Their instructors are professionals with years of experience both working and teaching in the industry. The program, which recently changed from 28 weeks to 16 weeks, starts off with classroom training, in which students learn everything from basic knife skills and proper table service to resume-writing and conflict resolution.
In the second half, students take to the kitchen where they learn how to use the kitchen equipment and practice simmering stocks, grilling meats, and baking desserts. Every day, they prepare lunch for one another and for any guests who may be visiting the Center that day.
Job placement opportunities are woven throughout the curriculum. All students also complete “stages,” or unpaid shifts in various kitchens, designed to give both aspiring cooks—and their potential employers—a sense of whether the position is a good fit. NE-CAT trainees learn about work in restaurants, food trucks, institutional food service, and food manufacturing.
“The program really gets them ready for any work in the food industry and really gets them ready to learn,” said Roz Freeman, community and operations manager for Commonwealth Kitchen, a food business incubator that employs several program alums. “Also, the commitment that it takes for folks to go through the NE-CAT program fits in with commitment it takes to start a new job.”
The facility is modeled on the Bidwell Training Center in Pittsburgh, which launched in 1968. Over the years, the Bidwell Center developed a philosophy of working with local businesses to match its training programs to the community’s needs. The model was such a success that the Center’s parent company has replicated it at eight affiliate centers across the country, each training disadvantaged local residents in skills that are in particular demand in each community. In San Francisco, BAYCAT offers training in digital media skills; the NewBridge Cleveland Center for Arts and Technology in Ohio trains students to be phlebotomists and pharmacy technicians.
An essential element of the model is the creation of beautiful learning spaces that show trainees they are valued and worth the investment. NE-CAT is housed in a former Chinese restaurant renovated specifically for the program. The kitchen is outfitted with professional equipment, gleaming stainless steel, and shelves stacked with pots, pans, and ingredients. Classroom instruction takes place in a spotless, wood paneled auditorium, and the hallways are decked with colorful artwork.
“It’s a little oasis,” Bartell said. “It really does raise the level of expectations they set for themselves.”
On average, 80 percent of students complete the program. About 80 percent of those graduates are then successfully placed in jobs. In 2016, NE-CAT plans to increase enrollment to 144 participants to meet demand from both employers and students.
Explaining how NE-CAT has changed her life, Ramesar simply gestured at her broad smile. “If you see, it’s all in my face.”
Photos courtesy of New England Center for Arts and Technology.