Kitchen Confidence at Elijah’s Promise Culinary School

By | November 15, 2016
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Inside the best-kept secret in culinary school

On a Tuesday night last summer, six students buttoned up their white chef ’s coats as they filed into the classroom kitchen at Elijah’s Promise Culinary School in New Brunswick. Halfway through their 22-week program, they’ve spent hours in this kitchen together by now, learning basic knife skills, studying soups and sauces and mastering meat-cutting. After an 80-hour externship— where they’ll get real-world experience in the food industry— they’ll graduate from Promise Culinary School.

Some students, like Kimberly Donaldson, a 20-year veteran of the restaurant industry, once dreamed of attending the Culinary Institute of America. Now these students realize that they’re getting a stellar culinary education with benefits that big-name schools can’t offer, like affordable tuition and unwavering support and mentorship from a dedicated staff.

“This is a small, local school, but it’s serious,” Donaldson says. “They’re really passionate about food. And they’re passionate about their students succeeding.”

Promise Culinary School is run by Elijah’s Promise, which opened as a small soup kitchen in 1989. Today, the organization continues to serve several hundred nutritious meals each day, all while running a catering company, building community gardens and partnering with local organizations to provide accessible housing and health care services to community members in need. Every aspect of its programming is directed by its mission to eradicate hunger and break the cycle of poverty.

“Our mantra is ‘food changes lives,’” says Jim Zullo, director of Elijah’s Promise. “There’s a lot of work that we do that has that effect, but nothing more so than our culinary program.”

In 1997, former Elijah’s Promise director Lissane Finston decided to open a culinary school. It would be a way to provide job training—a critical component of the organization’s efforts to get guests at the soup kitchen back to self-sufficiency. Finnston recruited chef Pearl Thompson, then an instructor at the New York Food and Hospitality School in Manhattan, to run the culinary program.

“We see the kitchen as the heart of the community,” Thompson says, “It gives us the ability to work with folks.” Thompson, director of Promise Culinary School, teaches classes, oversees staffing, and ensures that the students are supported with mentorship throughout the rigorous program. The talented staff she’s recruited— who share a belief in good quality food for everyone—set the tone of Promise Culinary School, which attracts students from all over northern New Jersey.

Chef Armando Miranda and Chef Pearl Thompson
Class in session at Promise Culinary School
Photo 1: left: Chef Armando Miranda teaches the evening bilingual culinary program. right: Chef Pearl Thompson, director of the culinary school at Elijah’s Promise; PHOTOGRAPHS: Matt Rainey
Photo 2: Class in session at Promise Culinary School; PHOTOGRAPH: Tatiana Rodriguez

Education Made Accessible

During Tuesday night’s class, the kitchen at Elijah’s Promise filled with the rich, meaty scent of bones roasting in the oven. The students hustled from the walk-in cooler to the spice rack to stainless steel tables, piling carrots, celery, and onions on their cutting boards. They were preparing stocks—the first lesson in Culinary Fundamentals.

One student looked over the mise en place list, which outlines the recipe ingredients and procedure for the night’s task. Octavia Morrison was class instructor chef Armando’s sous chef—kitchen speak for second in command—for the night. And she took it seriously, carefully gathering all the ingredients from the walk-in, assigning the mopping, dishes, and compost dumping, and reviewing the guidelines for the stock recipe.

Morrison, 23, has a wide smile and a sweet, frequent laugh. During the day, she works with developmentally disabled people at Alternatives Inc. in Raritan. She also has a 2-year-old daughter, Maylia.

“I get [to work] at 8:00 in the morning, leave around 4:00, and go straight to Elijah’s Promise,” she says. Her evening class runs from 5:30-10:30; afterward she picks up Maylia from her grandparents’ house. It’s a grueling schedule that requires commitment to maintain. But Elijah’s Promise goes to unusual lengths to safeguard its students, unlike some of the big-name culinary schools that can leave graduates with more debt than job prospects. They offer accelerated culinary and baking and pastry programs with an affordable tuition of $4,500 (CIA’s accelerated program costs about $33,000), plus access to scholarships.

“Chef Chrissy was a big help,” Morrison says of Chrissy Banks, culinary instructor and admissions counselor. “She led me to some programs that could possibly pay the tuition.” Morrison ended up getting full funding—including the required books, uniform, and ServeSafe certification fee. Without that kind of personal help, Morrison may not have attended school at all.

A Real-world Classroom Kitchen

Promise Culinary students come from various backgrounds; they are lifelong home cooks, career-changers, early-20s Food Network-worshippers, and recruits from the soup kitchen in need of a second start. “While the instructors are culinary instructors, they really care about the students and want to see them take the next step in their career and in their lives,” Zullo says.

Chef Armando Miranda was a student at Promise Culinary in 2008. He’d been in the industry since taking a job at a hotel restaurant in Mexico when he was 17. After years working in kitchens all over Mexico, and later Jersey City, he decided to go to school to advance his career.

Miranda’s next step turned out to be back at Elijah’s Promise. Several years after graduating, he was recruited by Thompson to start the bilingual evening culinary program, which has been schooling both Spanish and English speaking students since 2013.

Miranda experienced the language barrier in the kitchen when he moved to the U.S. from Mexico. He knew there were potential students in New Brunswick who needed a bilingual teacher—they wouldn’t be able to get through the program otherwise.

During the stock-making class on Tuesday night, Miranda taught most of the class in English, translating for two Spanish-speaking students if they needed clarification. “When you go out into the restaurant, they’re not going to speak to you in Spanish,” he says. “I’m strict with myself and with the students.”

He was in constant motion in the kitchen, checking on the bones in the oven, demonstrating how to crush peppercorns with the broad side of a knife, tying up a sachet of herbs for the stock, working from student to student.

He paused at the table where Donaldson and Morrison were working, sticking three fingers on the white plastic cutting board. He slid it back and forth across the metal table and raised his eyebrows at Donaldson. “You’re the one working here?” She forgot to secure the cutting board.

“I swear it wasn’t sliding on me, Chef!” Donaldson says. Morrison stepped in with strips of damp paper towel to stick under the board as Miranda continued to the next table.

Real-world training gives these students a leg up on graduates from many other culinary schools. “Because of the demanding nature of the food industry, we take a lot of pride in giving them exposure to what it’s going to be like when they leave our building and go work,” Zullo says. They learn how to solve problems, how to be team players, and how to think on their feet.

Students prepare bite-sized sweets
Students prepare bite-sized sweets; PHOTOGRAPH: Tatiana Rodriguez

Thriving in the Industry

Graduates of Promise Culinary School enter the industry as grill cooks, sauté cooks, pantry chefs and sous chefs. But they often surpass the initial positions. Promise Culinary graduates have gone on to work at places like Tavern on the Green, at local hospitals and at catering kitchens. They’ve come back to teach, and one former student now runs the soup kitchen at Elijah’s Promise.

Chef Jackie Mazza, formerly the executive pastry chef at Frog and the Peach in New Brunswick and now an adjunct baking and pastry instructor, has worked with a Promise Culinary extern. “She was the most dedicated, hardworking individual I’d ever encountered,” Mazza says of Marriett Velasquez. “She blew away every CIA extern, French Culinary extern—she ran circles around them.” Velasquez was hired at Frog and the Peach after graduating and now works as a private chef in Manhattan.

“This is an education you build on throughout your life,” Thompson says. Donaldson hopes to launch her career in fine dining through an externship at Frog and the Peach; Morrison expects to use her Promise degree to get into the accelerated baking and pastry program at the esteemed Johnson and Wales University. For both women, attending Promise Culinary meant gaining the skills—the precision Donaldson needed to hone, the knife skills Morrison wanted to sharpen—to take their next steps in the industry, buoyed with the confidence to thrive.

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