BRATTLEBORO—On graduation day, most students receive something from their schools: a diploma, a certificate, sometimes an award.
On Aug. 31, the 11 graduating participants of the first Strolling of the Heifers Farm-to-Plate Apprenticeship Program — designed to prepare the students for employment in the culinary arts field — celebrated their achievements by giving.
At American Legion Post 5, the graduates served lunch to attendees, allowing them to show off the skills they learned in the 12-week program.
The program’s other purpose, according to Orly Munzing, the founder and executive director of Strolling of the Heifers, is to provide participants with information on nutrition and the importance of a local food economy.
“We noticed a great deal of people in the community who need education on nutrition and farm-to-plate,” said Munzing.
In her work in the community, Munzing also kept hearing from restaurant owners how hard it is to “find good kitchen people.”
“Strolling of the Heifers is trying to get good jobs into the community and keep people employed,” she said, noting the organization’s desire to find “practical solutions” to economic development issues.
Nutrition, food, and the economy
This program combines an education in nutrition with applied job skills, including calculating food costs and planning menus.
Students began with a three-week intensive instruction period, combining classroom and experiential learning, including grant-subsidized training for the ServSafe food and beverage safety test and the opportunity to earn the resulting certificate.
“We did hands-on learning as much as possible,” said Tristan Toleno, who taught most of the three-week educational portion of the program.
Toleno, owner of Rigani Wood-Fired Pizza and Entera Catering, has many years of experience in training staff in kitchens. He also was an instructor at the New England Culinary Institute.
He said this program gives the students “internship opportunities, a job coach, and follow-through and support,” he added.
After the participants’ internships started, Toleno would continue to check in with the students.
“We would meet most Mondays, all day,” he said. They would go over “processing [their kitchen experiences], strategies, goal-setting, training and culinary knowledge of meat cuts, team-building, physical therapy body care, money management, catering, and peer support.”
In keeping with Strolling of the Heifers’ mission to raise awareness of local foods, Toleno’s lessons on managing the economic aspects of a restaurant or catering business focused on the many considerations of using “industrial versus local food,” he said.
Vicki Friedman, in her official role as job coach for the program, said she “helped the program participants get through issues,” explaining that she also served as a consistent and reliable mentor to the students.
At the program’s end, Friedman will help any student find a job.
“Most of them — at least 80 percent — will be hired,” said Munzing, adding, “it’s going to be 100 percent. We will find work for them.”
New opportunities for those who need it the most
The Farm-to-Plate Apprenticeship Program was also created to assist a portion of the population who might be struggling to find steady work.
On the program’s website, the list of qualifications for enrollment include “a history of low income” and “a history of unemployment or underemployment.”
There are almost as many reasons why a participant has experienced challenges in finding and keeping employment as there are participants. Some of the apprentices have physical or emotional challenges; others recently left institutional settings.
This program, Toleno said, “is an opportunity for the community to see people in a different way.”
“It’s a wonderful way to get people off the ground and working,” Munzing added.
For some of the students, their biggest barrier to employment is they are new to town and lack the local connections that often lead to getting a job.
Dylan Gallagher, who recently moved to the area, includes himself in that group.
“Without this program, I would have had a hard time getting back into the job market,” he said.
Although he initially wanted to be a fry cook, Gallagher’s experience learning about how kitchens operate and his discovery that other options exist in the culinary arts field showed him he could expand his horizons.
He also realized being a fry cook might not work for him.
“My dreams don’t match up with my abilities, so I’m learning to love my abilities as they are,” Gallagher said, noting “I’m content where I am.”
Danielle Kracum, who was placed in the kitchen at Thompson House in Brattleboro, said she applied to the program because of her strong interest in baking.
“I wanted to learn the sides of the culinary field I couldn’t get in a classroom setting,” she said, noting that “there’s not much [opportunity for] baking in Brattleboro, but there’s lots of interest in local foods.”
Although not all of her experience at Thompson House included baking, Kracum said she learned “to be more confident” in the kitchen.
“I ask a lot of questions,” she said. “I’m trying to improve efficiency in my baking, and learning at the internship helps outside those specific parameters, too.”
‘It keeps us sharp in our fields’
Jamie M. Baribeau, director of food and nutrition at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, said having an intern in his kitchen helped his staff, too.
“It’s a great opportunity for our chefs and the apprentice to work together, and it creates a learning and teaching environment for everyone,” Baribeau said. “It keeps us sharp in our fields.”
Dawn Hastings, culinary manager at the Brattleboro Food Co-op, echoed Baribeau’s assessment, and she noted the benefit of bringing in an intern versus simply hiring a new employee.
She said her staff “knew that it would take extra effort on their part to educate an intern brand new to the hospitality business.” But, Hastings added, “watching them during a very busy time work patiently with the intern and cultivate his skills was rewarding for everyone, not just the candidate.”
“The staff said they quickly realized how much more detailed they needed to be in working with the intern, which in turn improved their own skill set as trainers,” she observed.
Not all those who learned to train others in the kitchen were regular employees.
Kenny Watkins, who participated in the program as a student, came to his apprenticeship with prior kitchen experience and found himself showing others some of his skills.
Watkins said he studied culinary arts in high school and went on to work in a variety of food-service settings.
By working alongside his fellow students, many of whom had no prior kitchen experience, he said he “learned to slow down and help and train them.” He also bolstered his “coping skills” by “working with someone who’s slower.”
During his training, and his internship at the Whetstone Station Restaurant and Brewery, Watkins “was challenged to do new skills.”
And, although he spent most of his time there as a line cook, he also learned grill, salad, and sandwich stations.
“I rediscovered my passion for cooking,” he said.
A new beginning
For Watkins, the program also provided something else: a second chance.
Last year, after serving five years for what he describes as drug-related crimes, Watkins was released on parole from prison.
For the past year, he has lived at Phoenix House, a transitional program for men early in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. Two weeks ago, after meeting a variety of requirements, Watkins was permitted to move to his own apartment.
“I told Orly. I was straight up with her — I just got out of jail,” Watkins said, referring to the interview process all participants went through as part of admissions.
Munzing described Watkins as the program’s “poster boy,” noting his many successes.
“I have a lot of gratitude because of this program, and hopefully it’s a program that will continue,” Watkins said.
Munzing expressed her hope that “other industries” follow this model and offer their own education and apprenticeship programs.
When asked if Strolling of the Heifers planned to repeat the Farm-to-Plate program, she said in an email to The Commons, “We are open to going to reapply to foundations [for grants] once again and hope to have the program once again next summer.”