Updated: Aug 29, 2019
The word around the kitchen is that Chef Vanessa is strict and no-nonsense, maybe even a bit of a taskmaster. But after each Providence Culinary Training graduation, the graduates line up to hug her and thank her warmly… every time.
“I knew nothing about cooking,” Vanessa Lanier confesses, remembering back 11 years when she was a student herself at Second Harvest Food Bank’s Providence Culinary Training. “I had cooked for my family, but I had no skill worth mentioning to anyone. Chef Bacon was the only teacher in the program then, and he was sure I was going to cut myself with a knife. But through the program, I found something that I was decent at. Something that could make me happy.”
Vanessa learned about Providence Culinary Training (PCT) when she was searching for a plane ticket home. Originally from Barcelona, she had just left a controlling marriage, one where she couldn’t drive, couldn’t write a check.
“I thought to myself what am I going to do? I don’t know anyone here. This country is so big; it is going to eat me alive.”
People in crisis—whether they are leaving an abusive relationship, living in unstable housing, coming out of prison, or struggling in poverty—have to focus on their immediate needs. So much of time and energy is put into navigating the small details—how to get the children off to school, make your bus connection, negotiate a payment with the landlord—that planning for your future seems to be forever put on hold.
Vanessa was busy trying to start over in a new country with two young daughters. “I was suffocating in isolation, but I knew something had to give. I didn’t know how to make that happen—the program at Providence gave me a blueprint for success, and I said, ‘Yes. Yes, I can do this.’”
And do it she did. After graduating from PCT, the program placed her in an internship at a country club in Greensboro. From there she successfully launched a culinary career in local country clubs, learning the ropes and eventually becoming an Executive Chef.
However, perhaps as a manifestation of divine care and direction, she returned full circle to Providence.
Today, Chef Vanessa is the Executive Chef for both Providence Restaurant & Catering and for Providence Kitchen. Graduates of PCT can go on to work under Vanessa as part of a two-year residency program designed to fine-tune their skills and build their resumes. To date, the culinary training program has helped more than 700 individuals reach their goal of sustainable employment; in 2018, 66 more local residents earned their Chef Coats, just as Vanessa did over a decade ago. “Being back here, I can offer the blueprint now. I am the boss, but I am also you.”
Vanessa deeply understands the hardship and trauma that so many Providence students face. She refers to the program as not only job training, but as a place for healing. From case management to internships to connections in the culinary field, Providence is unique in the support it offers its students.
“We are not just going to teach you how to cut a carrot. We are going to teach you how to budget, how to interview, how to access a counselor or a pastor or a community,” says Vanessa, as she helps put dishes into a busing tray.
“People come here with real needs,” she continues. “We are telling someone to focus on their mirepoix, but they may be trying to figure out where they are going after work… how to get home or if they even have a home. At Providence, we can take some of that burden; help them plan for their future as they figure out today.”
[Mirepoix is a mixture of three or more chopped vegetables, including onion, carrots and celery that forms the aromatic base for a wide variety of savory dishes.]
“I used to wonder if there was a place for me at this table, but my story is not unlike other peoples’ stories. I found a path.” Vanessa smiles, smoothing her Chef Coat emblazoned with the Second Harvest and Providence logos.
“Now I can tell others: All of this belongs to you. That is the news of the day.”