Great Grandma Ginny’s coconut cake was what you call “small town famous.”
Tara Madison remembers her great grandmother’s table being covered with coconuts. Ginny would pour out the milk and scrape the flesh into large bowls. The phone would begin to ring a few weeks before Christmas with people from throughout the county placing orders for the cake. Even back then, Ginny could sell the cakes for $25–a pretty penny for a small Southern town in the 1980’s. Tara remembers her mother answering the phone one time and accidentally giving the wrong price of $35, but the customer still said yes. So the price went up. That’s just how good they were.
The recipe for that coconut cake hangs on Tara’s refrigerator now. “It’s right there, with a picture of my great grandmother. I can see it every day.”
After leaving work for over a decade to raise her son, including homeschooling him for a couple years, Tara found herself looking for new opportunities once he was a teenager. “I had been out of the workforce for so long, but I thought that maybe I could bake my family’s recipes and start a small business.”
That is how Tara stumbled across Second Harvest’s Providence Culinary Training (formerly Triad Community Kitchen) and decided to enroll. “Up until then, I just had what I learned from my family, but now there was so much more. Once I was there, I learned I had strengths I didn’t even know I could have.”
That process of discovery continued after Tara graduated from the program in 2012. Like many of the program’s alumni, Tara went on to work for Providence Catering–a non-profit social enterprise of Second Harvest Food Bank. While there, Providence Executive Director Jeff Bacon told her about a new plan he was, rather literally, cooking up: Providence Restaurant.
In 2015, Tara joined the Hospitality Residency Program at Providence Restaurant located in the DoubleTree in Winston-Salem. The Residency Program was designed to continue to build the skills…and resumes… of culinary school graduates.
“Establishing the hospitality residency program was an essential step in sustaining an individual’s employability,” explains Tina Faughnan, Director of Client Services at Providence. “It provides a “real” living, breathing restaurant for them to hone their skills and cross-train while being supported in their development.”
Tara thought she wanted to be in the restaurant’s kitchen for her residency. “That’s all I wanted to do, I had wanted to bake, and now I wanted to cook.” But the Providence Team encouraged her to try “front of the house”– interfacing with customers. “My mother was a waitress, my grandmother was a career waitress. My sister was a waitress in college. I just never saw myself doing it.”
But once she did, Tara discovered she was good at it. In fact, she was very good at it. She had the knack for customer service and connecting with people. “I surprised myself,” she admits. “I shined.”
So now, years after first applying to the culinary school, Tara is putting all of the skills she has gathered to the test. She has accepted the challenge of helping to open Second Harvest’s newest social venture restaurant: Providence Kitchen.
Providence Kitchen will bring 5 permanent positions and 7 to 8 new residency positions to the Providence program. While Providence Restaurant offers residents fine dining experience at both the front and back of the house, Providence Kitchen will offer additional skill development like barista training.
“This way, our culinary school graduates can go deeper, get more experience. Between the restaurants and catering, it will be like having electives… they can choose which path feels right for them.”
“The culinary training program provides a great foundation but you can’t mimic the pulse of an actual restaurant: the customers, the sense of urgency,” explains Faughnan. “When we refer individuals to employment partners, their resumes can now have the stability of a two-year history to back it up. In simple terms, introducing the restaurants and residency programs were a game-changer.”
For her part, Tara is thrilled to have come full circle with the Providence experience. She remembers arriving at the culinary school, a little nervous about her new direction after so many years of staying home as a mom.
Now she will be on the other end, mentoring and leading students and residents towards their goals. “It’s going to be a lot of work,” she says. “It’s going to be really exciting.”
She is going to help them see where they can shine.
But she promises hasn’t forgotten the Coconut Cake.