Monday, August 31, 2009

Online extras for August CET

CET talks with high school culinary instructor on preparing inner-city students for the future

Editor's note: A portion of the following Q&A was featured in the "Recipe for success" article (page 22) that appeared in the Spotlight department of the August 2009 issue of Chef Educator Today.

After 36 years of teaching in the Chicago area, Gloria Hafer retired--but her retirement didn't last long. In 1997, she returned to the classroom, this time teaching cooking and nutrition at a local elementary school. Today, with the support of grants and the backing of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley (whose father and former Mayor Richard J. Daley is the program's namesake), Hafer's modest class has evolved into the RJD Culinary Institute at George Washington High School in southeastern Chicago.

Hafer, the program's director and sole instructor, recently talked with Chef Educator Today (CET) about how her students’ kitchen know-how translates into real-world success.

CET: How did the RJD Culinary Institute come about?
Hafer: We started with eighth graders at the age [of] 12 and 13 years old, and it evolved from there. More and more kids wanted to get into the program ... and during the summer, I would do job apprenticeships--as I'm doing right now--and then I was contacted by the principal of [George] Washington High School, and she said, "How about if you move the program here?" So, we expanded. I also met with Mayor Daley, and he, too, agreed it was important that we have training for the students who, for whatever reason, couldn’t go to college. The program evolved ... and today we have over 250 kids a day in the program between the day program at Washington; the After School Matters program, which is chaired by Mrs. Daley; and Youth Ready Chicago, which is Mayor Daley's summer work program. And I've just gotten word that we may expand even more, and we may end up doubling our capacity. So now, instead of 200 kids a day, I'm going to have 400 kids a day!

CET: Do you operate under one of the academic departments at George Washington High School?
Hafer: No, not really. I am my own entity. I am the culinary arts program at Washington High School. I developed this program on my own from my teaching background and with obvious help from other teachers and chefs that I know. I am the teacher, the director, the grocery shopper, the everything-that-needs-to-be-done person.

CET: What is your program's mission?
Hafer: The mission of the program now is to take the kids--these are inner-city school kids--and let them know that there are people who care about them; there are programs that are out there for them; and that if they work hard enough and want it bad enough, they can be a success. Now, the success I offer is through culinary, and what kid [doesn't] like to eat. The mission is to get them off Welfare, get them off the streets, get them away from negative issues that they might be involved in, and say, "Hey, you can do it, and you can do it right here. You've just got to work, and you've got to work hard."

I started the program in 1997 on a wing and a prayer with 35 kids in the teachers' lunchroom in an elementary school. And as word got out that I was doing this, many people, especially in the culinary field, wanted to be involved. Because, as we know, these students [who] I'm starting to train, are going to be our future workers in the hospitality industry. I know that the high schools around us and obviously the big culinary schools have their programs, but my contention was--and it's a known fact--that in the area where I live, the gangs start recruiting sometimes as [early] as third grade and fifth grade. And the objective of me starting the program was to do something with these kids to get them off the streets and give them a positive outlook at something they can achieve, rather than going in the opposite direction.

CET: As you mentioned, this high school culinary arts program grew out a similar course that you taught for a number of years at the elementary school level. How have you altered your lesson plans and teaching methods for high school-age students?
Hafer: I start with the students when they're freshmen. ... In our first year, we just go over learning the equipment, measurements/conversions—you'd be surprised at how many kids don't know how many ounces are in a cup. So we do all of that basic stuff in that freshman year or summer [after freshman] year. Then by the end of freshman year and into their sophomore and junior year, we really get into the sanitation part, the correct measurement part, we get into teamwork, we get into what it takes to be a culinarian—standing on your feet 12 hours a day and still getting the job down. They get all this training.

Now, I'm working with Illinois Restaurant Association and [Chicago Public Schools (CPS)] to have instructors come in and actually get the students certified: cross-contamination, proper temperature control--all of that is taught to them. The idea is that if a student cannot or does not go on to college when they finish high school, they still know the basic concepts, [so] they can walk into any restaurant or dining establishment and apply for a job.

And as I tell the kids, it's okay if you don't become a chef, but there are so many parts of the industry where you can use these skills: teamwork, following directions, reading, math. And I don't have a great facility, so I also teach students to think outside of the box: If we don't have this, what can we use instead. How can we make this work? Maybe we're making this work in the kitchen, but maybe you've got to jerry-rig a piece on you car because it's not working properly, and you don't have the proper equipment. But if you learn those skills and how to think and work as a team, you'll succeed in whatever you do.

CET: Can you give us an example of a success story that you've shared with students to inspire them?
Hafer: A former student of mine grew up in Englewood [a Chicago neighborhood], which is obviously not always a good environment. And he worked with me for the last three years in high school, but due to his family situation, he did not have the money to go to culinary school. So what did [he] decide to do? He joined the Navy, and now he is in culinary training. He graduated [from high school], and now he is going to be stationed in San Diego, cooking for the Naval fleet.

I've got another [former] student who started with me at 13 years old, and he [recently] graduated from Dartmouth. Hello? Darmouth! This little kid from the South Side who used to say he would listen to bullets outside his window at night and wonder what would become of himself, and then we mentored him, and he found that he had options in life. While going to school full-time at Dartmouth, he made and sold party cakes and presentation cakes as a kind of side business. When he went to Dartmouth, he brought his cooking pans with him, and he would make cakes for the other students and sell them to make extra money. Brilliant.

And then there's David; he went [the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago]. He got his culinary training. Jen right now is in pastry and baking at Washburne. I can go on and on. ... I could give you a list of 30 or 40 names of my students who've gone on to use their culinary training.

CET: Tell us a more about your involvement with After School Matters.
Hafer: It's an extension of the high school program. After School Matters is backed by, or rather presented by, the City of Chicago. After School Matters, as the name implies, is a program that's available for students after school. We've found that a high percent of the [negative] incidents that involve young adults happen after school when they're unsupervised. Or maybe they're just bored or don't have anything else to do, so trouble just finds them. So, the After School Matters program--which isn't just culinary; it's music, art, dance, technology, all kinds of programs available--gives the students an opportunity to extend their education after school, keep them safe, teach them a skill in an area that they're interested in, and get them on their way to success and into the job market. It starts in high school.

My students, who are so funny and bright, came up with this saying for our program: "Hafer is safer."

I talk to them like my own kids. I tell them you are my children, and I'm going to protect you to the best of my ability, but I'm also going to make you learn. I'm going to make you work, and I'm going to make you succeed; you're not going to sit back. My daughter is a Senior Chief in the military for the Navy, and my son is a chef for Nordstroms. Again, though, they worked hard. They weren't born with a silver spoon in their mouth, and neither was I. I was Welfare when I was a kid. I was on the food lines, and that's how I learned to cook. Because when we went to the food pantry, we had to figure out a recipe because that's all we had. We didn't have the Whip card and the money cards that they give the people today. They gave you a bag of groceries and that's it. If you were hungry, you had to figure out how to cook. My mother was the "father" of the family, and she went out and tried to make what she could. And I stayed home with my three brothers, and guess what? They had to eat.

As I tell the kids--and I'm not knocking training, but--sometimes those life skills are more important than the official training you get because you learn how to really work, and learn how to make good things happen. And the official training just serves as the ice cream and the cherry on the cake and really takes them to the next level, which is where I want them all to aspire to be.

CET: The program is funded almost entirely through outside grants and donations. How have raised awareness of and money for the program over the years?
Hafer: I do have a tendency to be a little high-profile, and I know sometimes people say, "Oh, god, here she comes. Everybody turn and run." But, as I tell the kids, it's very important to network, so we do a lot of networking. I do a lot of networking downtown with business people, with culinarians that I have met over the years through programs that I have run. So, whenever we have an opportunity to be profiled, we do it. [In July], we performed a culinary demo at the Taste of Chicago [food festival], we’ve worked with the French Pastry School and other local culinary schools—Washburne, Kendall, Robert Morris. All of these culinary schools know that these are their future students, too. So, we continually feed on each other. I don't care that they're giving me an old pan because they’re getting new equipment. I'll take the old pan, and I'll clean it up, and we'll use it.

I go to all of these businesses, these companies and culinary school. I work with Linda Rosner, who’s the president of the American Culinary Federation [Windy City Professional Culinarians chapter]. The American Culinary Federation is one of our staunchest supporters; they work with the kids, they give them opportunities.

And the students go with me because they need to learn those [networking] skills--they need to learn how to represent themselves, how to shake hands, make eye contact, talk to individuals. Because then, when [my students] interview for a job and they have those skills, and the other [candidate] doesn't, they're a shoo-in.

Our Alderman John Pope and Mayor Daly, they've all seen that what we're doing is a positive thing, and they see the results that these kids are making. And so everybody just sort of jumps on board: "Hey, Glor, how can we help you out?" And I know times are bad right now, as they are for everybody. Everybody's trying to stretch their dollars and make it work, and I'm doing exactly the same thing. But with the help of all of these great people and institutions, and with a wing and prayer and the Lord, we're going to continue to make it happen.

CET: What plans do you and your students have for the year ahead?
Hafer: It looks as though, if all goes well, we're going to get a grant from CPS, and they're going to expand our space. I'm going to get some new equipment ... and we're just going to keep our face out there, working and promoting the program and the kids and the culinary field--hopefully finding jobs out there that are available to students. ... All of that means more work for me, but as you can probably tell, I sort of love what I’m doing.

You have to understand, I am "retired." I retired from the board of education with 36 years of service, and I'm still teaching. I could be sitting on a cruise ship in the middle of an ocean eating bon-bons and sipping on a piƱa colada, you know, but I love what I'm doing. I love the kids, and I love the fact that they are trying to make a difference in their lives. And if they're willing to do it, I tell them, "I will be there for you."

I'm not saying I don't have failures; everybody does. But mine seem to be few and far between, and even then I still run into former students who tell me, "Oh, Ms. Hafer, I should have stuck with you, finished the program."