If you can find your way through the maze of food pallets stacked floor to ceiling in the lofty warehouse of Second Harvest Food Bank, you’ll find a classroom of happy students watching a demonstration by a local chef. Push through the double swinging doors beyond the class, and you’ll find a state-of-the-art kitchen where instructor Janis Karathanas, herself a trained chef, spends her days teaching culinary job skills to the 60 to 80 students who graduate from Triad Community Kitchen’s cooking school in Winston-Salem each year.
Now in its 10th year, Triad Community Kitchen (TCK) is the brain child of Jeff Bacon, a nationally recognized chef with 30 years of experience, along with degrees in nutrition from UNCG and N.C. State.
For years, Chef Bacon had a vision of providing a place where those who needed a second chance could learn a skill and make a better life for themselves. He was inspired by an organization in Charlotte that took unused kitchen space and used it to give people a culinary education and provide meals for the hungry.
He felt it was a “no-brainer” that something like that could work in the Triad, but the idea didn’t take off as fast as he’d hoped. All told, it took eight years of fundraising, talking to people, and building relationships before he was able to launch his vision. In 2006, Bacon partnered with Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest N.C., and together they’ve provided job skills for the underemployed while preparing thousands of ready-to-heat meals for food-assistance programs throughout the region.
TCK is not a typical culinary school. You won’t find an impressive dean’s list filled with Michelin star winners. What you will find are people like Chef Janis, a 2009 graduate of TCK who was later nominated into the Best Chefs America organization. As she moves around the kitchen, complimenting and encouraging those under her tutelage, it’s clear she cares deeply about the students and wants to see them succeed.
“You have to put love in everything you cook,” says Karathanas, who also serves as pastry chef for Providence, a restaurant and catering service associated with the school. “The people at [TCK] are not only passionate about the program, but they’re passionate about changing lives.”
The school consists of three tiers that take place during a 13-week, Monday-through-Friday course of study. During the first tier, students learn about culinary history and various jobs in the kitchen. They are taught basic knife skills, how to quantify a recipe, and how to prepare salad dressings. During the second tier, they learn about braising, stewing, sautéing, grilling, and frying. When they have reached the third tier, they work at TCK for two days, and then go to work at Providence Restaurant for the additional three days. At the end of 13 weeks, students graduate with both a Serve Safe and a culinary certificate, ready to enter the workforce.
Students are often referred to the program by Forsyth Tech, Goodwill, or other nonprofits in the community. They come from various ethnic backgrounds and levels of need. Some may have had troubled pasts, making it difficult for them to find jobs. Others have struggled to find steady employment or have lost jobs due to different circumstances. All of them are embraced by Karathanas and Bacon—along with the team of instructors at TCK—who give them an opportunity to gain a skill and then help them through the job-placement process. Many of the students now serve in the local hospitality industry.
Serving the Community
Another arm of the program has been the Premium Soup Line, which was launched as an ongoing partnership with Lowes Foods. The soups are “hand-crafted, chef-tested recipes” that are made using locally sourced produce along with purchased products. They’re prepared in the cook/chill facility at Second Harvest, which is on Reed Street in Southside Winston-Salem. In addition to soups, TCK also prepares vacuum-sealed, ready-to-heat meals such as beefaroni, chili con carne, or pepper steak, all served with rice. More than 500,000 pounds of these meals have been distributed to food pantries, soup kitchens, and emergency shelters throughout the state, providing a way for the students to give back to others in need.
When viewed as a whole, it’s clear that Triad Community Kitchen has grown into a major force for good in the community—just as Chef Bacon hoped it would. When asked about the program’s impact during the past 10 years, he was quick to respond that “the ability to change lives for the better” had been the biggest reward.
“So many have come through our program and have excelled. We have 560 alumni out there now, and they’re working culinary jobs they love and contributing to the community. To me, it doesn’t get much more life-changing than that.”