Cooking up a career: Students graduate from 126th Cincinnati Cooks program for culinary jobs

CINCINNATI - On Feb. 28, Marika Matthews graduates from the 126th Cincinnati Cooks  class of eight students. The free, 10-week program from Freestore Foodbank is designed to help students improve their lives through food.

Matthews, 39, was laid off from her IT job in 2010. At that point, she decided to attend college online for health information management, a program that allowed her to take classes online and meet with her instructor once a week.

But the single mother of four had trouble finding a job. She felt ashamed because her oldest daughter had two jobs and was helping support the family. Raised to be independent, Matthews said she didn’t want to accept the fact that she needed help.

Then Matthews saw Chef Jeff Pitts, lead instructor of Cincinnati Cooks, do a cooking demonstration on the news.

“I think I had a major breakdown on Monday, and saw the TV segment that Thursday,” Matthews said. “I think of it as my ‘aha’ moment.”

She changed her expectations of what she “should be" doing, and decided to pursue something she enjoys doing.

“Sometimes you have to turn left,” Matthews said. “And you’re never too old to start over.”

Matthews has always loved to cook. She and her children have family dinners on Sundays; Mondays and Tuesdays are sandwich nights. The rest of the week, they try different recipes, and Matthews tries to plan meals ahead of time to limit trips to the grocery store.

Growing up, her family didn’t eat fast food, and she has raised her children that way too. But, she didn’t know her skill level and never thought of cooking as a career. Nor did she see herself passing up the jars of sauces at the store and make them fresh at home instead.

Cooking up careers

Cincinnati Cooks is a free training program, made possible through catering jobs for weddings, corporate events and dinner parties. It also gives students a chance to earn money while attending the cooking school.

The program incorporates three aspects of learning: bulk, cafeteria style and a la carte. If students wish to continue learning, they can enroll in a second Cincinnati Cooks course, which focuses on fine dining.

Besides learning basic cooking skills and techniques, students cook for Freestore Foodbank's Kids Café , an after school program that offers children a hot meal, as well as tutoring opportunities. The meals contain a protein, a vegetable and a starch. Freestore offers the program because many of the children Kids Café serves don’t get a hot meal when they get home.

“It plays a large role in the success of Cincinnati Cooks,” Pitts said. “Students want to give back, and they have a drive to give back. I always hear ‘we’ve got to feed the kids.’”

Cincinnati Cooks students have one primary goal: to get a job. Freestore Foodbank recruiter and career coach Kim Williams helps students craft their resumes and prepare for job searches and interviews. Freestore also partners with Dress for Success, a local nonprofit that provides job seekers with clothes for interviews.

“There are so many resources here. I never knew how much Freestore does,” Matthews said.

Founded in 2001, Cincinnati Cooks graduates a class of 10 to 12 students every five weeks. 

Students learn basic culinary terms, knife skills and French cooking processes. They also have the opportunity to take ServSafe certification through the Board of Health and the National Restaurant Association. The certification shows employers that potential employees know how to handle food safely, a skill that is far more difficult to teach than cooking, Pitts said.

Head of the class

Pitts has been teaching at Cincinnati Cooks for seven years. Before that, he was a student in class number 29. He turned to cooking after work injury forced him to leave the construction business. He started out as a volunteer, and was eventually hired on to teach.

To Pitts, the program is about giving students hope and connections through food.

“People come from all walks of life: They’re housewives who want to learn to cook better, people who want to learn more, or people who are down on their luck. And they all want to better their lives,” Pitts said.

Each day, students cook a meal to share with their classmates. They eat lunch together, cafeteria-style, and the leftovers go home with them to share with their families.

Not long ago, Pitts was at Walmart when a young woman ran up to him, hugged and thanked him for helping her mother find a job.

“It was the best feeling,” he said.

Graduates of Cincinnati Cooks receive a completion certificate, resume, ServSafe certification (if they passed) and, if they have a job lined up, a set of knives.

"This is my future"

As she prepares to graduate from Cincinnati Cooks Matthews is proud of setting a good example for her children.

“They questioned why I wanted to go into culinary,” she said. “They told me that it’s not what I do. But I’ve shown them what I can do, and they’re proud of me.”

Matthews really enjoys bringing food home for her children so they can taste what she made in class. She

said her youngest two are always excited to try what she’s been cooking.

“Students are so lit up after the program,” Pitts said. “They’re excited about their new job and new opportunities.”

After graduating, Matthews will be starting her new job at Chipotle. She’s excited because she gets to hone the skills she learned at Cincinnati Cooks! She’ll also have the opportunity to grow within the ompany and move up.

“I’ve learned so much from Cincinnati Cooks!,” she said. “I’m excited about something again, and I’m enjoying what I’m doing. This is my future.”

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