For the past two years, the Chattanooga Salvation Army has been running a culinary arts program in their kitchen on McCallie Avenue to help teach homeless and low-income clients restaurant job skills that can turn into employment and a more stable future.
The program, which graduated its fourth class on Tuesday, also includes a two-week internship in a local commercial kitchen and potential job placement at a partnering organization upon completion of the internship.
"We're proud to say that everyone who has come through has found a more stable lifestyle afterward," Kimberly George, Salvation Army director of marketing and development, said.
The program is still small, enrolling only three to five clients or students each session, and it is only offered two times a year. George said the future looks bright not only for the program's graduates but for the culinary school itself, as plans to build a new Salvation Army shelter include a larger kitchen that will be big enough to house a full teaching area in addition to the working kitchen that feeds meals to hundreds of needy Chattanoogans each day.Â
Chef Terry Epps is the director of the Salvation Army School of Culinary Arts. Although he holds a degree from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Atlanta and could probably work anywhere, Epps said his three years at the Salvation Army in Chattanooga have been "rewarding beyond words."
Epps says he shows students the slow food methods of preparing meals, including everything that gets the food from "the ground to the plate." Before they step foot in the kitchen, Epps said he starts in the nonprofit's environmentally friendly vegetable garden and teaches students how to grow some of the foods they will be learning to cook.
The students also learn food and kitchen safety and sanitation; proper use of equipment, including basic knife skills; cooking theory; serving methods; and kitchen operations.
When it comes down to it, however, Epps admits he learns plenty from his students and teaches much more than cooking during the 12-week course.
"We mostly work with the homeless and indigent. Most of them have been told that they can't do anything, that they'll never amount to anything," Epps said.
But something happens when that chef coat is put on for the first time.
"...It's amazing how their back straightens up because all of a sudden they have some self-worth. And that is what I try to teach them," he said.
Desia Clements was one of three graduates who completed the program this week and recommends it for anyone who is in transition and trying to change their ways.
Clements admitted to being in trouble with the law before getting involved at the culinary school. The self-proclaimed "microwave queen" is now proud of her fried pork chops and is looking forward to cooking more for friends and family, including the new baby due to arrive next month.
"This is not just about cooking. It's about helping other people," she said.
The culinary school's mission is not only to teach culinary skills but also promote self-respect, build self-sufficiency and strengthen the individual and the family.
During the program, Clements said she also worked in the kitchen, helping with the nightly meals offered at the Salvation Army. The experience gave her a new perspective.
"I definitely thought less about myself and am appreciative for what I do have," she said.
Another thing she hopes to have soon after the baby is born is a new job in a kitchen at a top restaurant in Chattanooga.
"There is a placement program, and this definitely opens up possibilities," she said.
The graduation ceremony on Tuesday was part of several National Salvation Army Week events scheduled through May 19, including a Rock the Red Shield free concert in Coolidge Park on Saturday afternoon.Â