Charles Jarvis cooked the entire meal for his rehearsal dinner before he married his wife, Brionne. Stuffed chicken breasts, stuffed mushrooms with rice…it took days to make all the dishes, and get it just right.
It had to be perfect: he was marrying his high school sweetheart and best friend.
He smiles broadly as he talks about that meal: “That’s when they all realized they could ask me to cook for their events, too.”
That was 10 years ago now, and what feels like a lifetime ago. Children were born, then life took a difficult turn. Charles became very ill and was rendered unable to work. His wife, a tiny and cheerful woman, picked up work at a daycare. However, even at full time, her wages were simply not enough to meet the basic needs of their family. “I became very depressed…things were so hard then,” says Charles, reflecting.
For the Jarvis family–like all too many American families stringing together an existence between high costs and low wages–things felt very bleak.
Providence Culinary Training
Brionne Jarvis has a huge, bright smile and you get the feeling from her that she would make a great cheerleader. That is exactly the role she played when the family found out about Second Harvest’s Providence Culinary Training (then called Triad Community Kitchen). “I remembered the dinner he made for our wedding and how incredible it was,” she says. “ I just knew he would be great in the program.”
Once he became well enough, Charles enrolled in the 13-week culinary program at Second Harvest, uncertain of what to expect. Knife skills, baking skills, mass food production…the curriculum is daunting. But what PCT offers is exactly what Charles was looking for: a fine-tuning of his culinary skills for a competitive edge and the connections to find a reputable kitchen to work in.
“Anyone can do this if they put in the work,” Charles says, with characteristic humility. Charles explains that he was impressed by the work ethic of everyone in his class; people who had faced the many obstacles of poverty or who had been working but for wages that could not sustain a family. But he saw that many people in the class and in his community lacked the access and connections necessary to really make it. “The internship portion of the program was crucial because it allows you to feel the flow of the business and also puts you in front of people who might hire you,” says Charles. “Without the program, it’s hard to get into a good restaurant if you don’t have something behind you. PCT gives you connections.”
It Takes a Village
Providence connected Charles to Winston-Salem’s celebrated Village Tavern, where he works today as a manager. He is on salary, affording Charles and Brionne a new stability and the capacity to budget and plan for their family while paying bills.
This stability feels like it was a long time coming to the Jarvis family, and, in full truth, it took three years of dedication and hard work to get there. “A couple of months in, I was thinking to myself ‘I’m not good enough for this,’” recalls Charles. His supervisor at Village Tavern encouraged him, however. “He kept saying to me ‘I’m going to make you great. You can do this.’ That would give me enough to come in again the next day and try again.”
When Charles speaks of those early days at Village Tavern, he speaks a lot about the people who encouraged him…Brionne, his supervisor, his colleagues. “A kitchen has to flow,” he says. You have to be good with others and listen to others. We are, after all, making one show, not many small shows. It’s a production, and we all have a part.”
Charles now offers that same encouragement to those who work under him on the team–many of whom are PCT graduates themselves. He says that he encourages the kitchen staff to try new things, to move from the salad line to the grill and visa versa. “I want to build up their confidence and push these guys to do a little bit better, and then a bit better again.”
This is a common theme you hear from PCT graduates. The program emphasizes not only the hard skills of kitchen work, but also how to support one another. This support is vital for the notoriously hectic, fast-paced and sometimes cut-throat atmosphere of a kitchen. But it is also vital for people who come from difficult pasts and have not always had the benefit of an affirming environment.
Lindsay Bledsoe, PCT’s full-time social worker, is available to students as they go through the program. Lindsay says that many students are homeless, formerly incarcerated, single parents or have other significant barriers in their lives at their time of enrollment. Second Harvest and PCT understand that beyond employment training, these students need to be supported and bolstered in order to reach their goals. Charles is continuing that philosophy in his kitchen at Village Tavern.
“I am hard on myself,” he confesses. “A few months ago I started closing the restaurant alone. The first night was rough. I like to be really good at something all the time, and I wasn’t good at it at all. The next night was still rough, but better. You just have to keep trying. That’s what I tell the guys who work here, too.”
For Charles, it has been a long journey to get to where he is. He has overcome the difficult time that surrounds an extreme illness, he has successfully graduated from a demanding culinary program, and he has worked his way up, rung by rung, in a prominent restaurant.
Charles has reached a place where everything combined–the skills he learned while a student, the experience of years working in a fast-paced kitchen, and the support of his colleagues and of Brionne–allows him to return to focus on what he has loved: food.
He says that being at Village Tavern has introduced him to new foods and new ideas about cuisine. The two items that he highly recommends from their menu are the Tilapia Hemingway and the Shrimp and Grits…“And I don’t even like grits!” he laughs.
“I love to create new dishes and to match food to wines,” he says. “I really enjoy the ‘wow’ factor of a great dish, and the patience and dedication to create extraordinary things that take a lot of time.”
(Here he explained to us a dish he is working on for Village Tavern, which isn’t yet on the menu…so we won’t reveal it now.. However, once it is…we are going to let you know!)
“Food is an art. You can do anything with it. The possibilities are endless,” he says.
Charles Jarvis seems to show us that is true for our lives, as well.