Life’s Kitchen is a local nonprofit organization that provides food service and life skills training to people 16-20 years old, all while giving them real-life work experience through its catering business, cafe and restaurant. Trainees may have dealt with challenges that present barriers to employment, such as dropping out of high school prior to graduating, homelessness, health problems or domestic violence.
“It’s their opportunity to be part of the community, and a positive part of the community,” says Life’s Kitchen Executive Director Tammy Johnson.
The organization was founded in 2003 by local chef and restaurateur Rory Farrow, who found herself frequently assisting the young people who came to work at her restaurants with basic life skills such as finding housing and balancing a budget. Life’s Kitchen is a member of the Catalyst Kitchens network, which supports similar organizations dedicated to offering training and community engagement opportunities. In 2018, 49 people graduated from Life’s Kitchen’s training program.
In addition to training, Life’s Kitchen trainees can study for and obtain their GED or the manager’s level food safety certification ServSafe.
Like a family
Aside from teaching skills, Life’s Kitchen also functions as a support system for trainees. Even after graduating, former trainees stop by to say hello, get assistance filling out job resumes and even volunteer, Johnson says.
Such is the case for 20-year-old Jason Fenn, a recent graduate.
The staff at Life’s Kitchen acted as a sort of lifeline for Fenn, who started the program in late 2018 but dropped out and moved out of state, where he experienced domestic violence. When he decided to leave, the first person he reached out to was Sue Olszewski, the Life’s Kitchen program director who had been calling and checking up on him all along.
“I love my family very dearly, but at the time I had a lot of secrets,” Fenn says. “Talking to Sue was one of my only relationships with an older adult who I could be honest with and was accepting.”
Fenn says Olszewski invited him back into the program and made clear that there would always be a support system for him at Life’s Kitchen.
Johnson echoes that sentiment.
“We really try to make it a family-type environment, where there is always support.”
It is a work environment with positive and professional boundaries as well, she adds, but people know they always have a place to go.
“Once you join the program, it’s almost like a subscription for life,” Fenn says, laughing.
Fenn, who was now out as transgender, moved back to Boise in April 2019. Due to complicated circumstances, he was homeless for awhile before finding a place to live. The staff at Life’s Kitchen helped him find a job at a local restaurant and welcomed him back into the program. He was able to pick up where he left off in his training and graduated in May.
After graduation, a partnership with the Idaho Department of Labor enabled Fenn to work as a paid office assistant at Life’s Kitchen, taking media photos and co-managing the organization’s social media while also volunteering and teaching the current set of trainees.
As media photographer, Fenn got to travel along with the trainees and document their experiences working at events and attending classes. For instance, he accompanied trainees on a visit to a local equine program where the trainees interacted with miniature horses and learned how to handle and understand them. It was a helpful and calming experience for trainees overcoming traumatic experiences because the horses were therapy animals.
Wanting to further his art, Fenn’s next career step was an internship at a local photography studio. Fenn says he wants to use his talents to help others and continue working with nonprofits.
Finding a Job
Moving on is something the staff at Life’s Kitchen are happy to see their trainees do. In fact, a major part of their final weeks of training is learning life skills such as the basics of voting and getting a driver’s license, finding housing and finding employment.
Trainees work on their resumes, write cover letters, scope out future job opportunities and do mock job interviews with community volunteers. The staff at Life’s Kitchen help trainees find and apply for jobs where they can best use their talents and pursue their dreams, whether in a kitchen or a completely different industry.
Life’s Kitchen graduates who want to go into the culinary industry have the advantage of training to set them apart, as well as an industry that is seeking skilled labor. According to a recent survey by restaurant technology company Toast, the employee turnover rate for U.S. restaurants is at an all-time high of 75%. Of those surveyed, 51% of restaurant operators said staffing was a top challenge.
While Johnson says she is not an expert on the state of the local restaurant and catering workforce, she says her office receives plenty of calls from chefs that are hiring. Finding and keeping skilled workers at a restaurant — especially catering staff — can be a challenge, she explains. That’s one of the reasons why the training students receive at Life’s Kitchen is so valuable.
She always tells graduates that no matter what they choose to do in their lives, they have their training to fall back on.
Fenn echoes that sentiment, recalling working in a local restaurant and feeling confident that, because of his training, he could perform a variety of tasks around the kitchen.
“That’s something that keeps me going,” he says. “If something else fails, I always have this foundation.”