Giving Back: San Francisco Chefs Teach Free Cooking Classes for Homeless and At-Risk Youth

More culinary awards and stars than you can shake a whisk at have been bestowed upon Bay Area chefs who are devoting hundreds of hours of instruction — in addition to a palpable passion and energy — and eventually a paid job to newly-trained graduates of non-profit programs.

Much is written about San Francisco as a widely recognized leader in the culinary world, a showcase for farm-to-table, a fertile terrain for foodies who appreciate the bounty brought forth by distinguished Bay Area chefs.

However, relatively little is known about what these celebrated chefs, joined by food service professionals, educators, journalists and authors are doing to help at-risk youth, the homeless and former inmates through providing them with hands-on cooking programs designed to start them out in a new life.

CHEFS: Conquering Homelessness through Employment in Food Services

On Thanksgiving eve, Executive Chef Sharon Namh stepped away from the ovens at E & O Asian Kitchen to remind everyone to save room for dessert. Her Union Square restaurant was hosting a six-course meal for the annual gathering of CHEFS: students, faculty, graduates, interns coming together to celebrate the program and one another.

Following her release from prison on drug charges, Christina Laygo noticed a pamphlet describing the CHEFS program through Episcopal Community Services at her halfway house. She enrolled. To qualify for the six-month program founded in 1997, students must be on the street, in a treatment program, in transitional housing or a shelter. Laygo feels she is “very blessed, more than words can say” to have successfully emerged from the program, and to be employed as a culinary assistant at Zynga’s offices.

Everything from nutrition to food safety, plus learning about work readiness and teamwork in the kitchen, is covered before the students advance to cooking methods, knife skills and kitchen equipment.

On any given day, guest instructors include top San Francisco chefs: Sharon Namh of E & O Asian Kitchen on appetizers, Eric Tucker of Millennium on vegan cuisine, Rob Zaborny of Hayes Street Grill on fish preparation, Laurie MacKenzie of Mission Pie Cafe on Mexican Cuisine, Jennifer Biesty of Scala’s Bistro at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel on plating techniques and cookbook author Marlene Sorosky Gray with an introduction to taste and salad.

In addition to dedicating personal time, these chefs and others are hosting internships at more well-known San Francisco eateries, including Kokkari Estiatorio, Nopa and 1300 on Fillmore. Additional out-placements are provided at Salvation Army, Raphael House, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Joseph’s and other San Francisco family shelters and senior care centers where the newly-minted CHEFS graduates can get to work and start out fresh.

The Cooking Project

Larkin Street Youth Services is a 40-year-old Tenderloin-based organization providing kids with a way to get off the streets and re-build their lives. It starts with a place to live, that’s “not just housing, but a continuum around nutrition, health care, education, employment because all are essential stabilizing and motivating life skills,” according to Ben Nelsen, food services coordinator at Larkin Street Youth Services.

A short walk from Larkin Street’s emergency shelter, the San Francisco Cooking School is located in a gleaming state-of-the-art facility in an historic building near City Hall. It’s here that a number of under-25’s from Larkin Street Youth Project attend free weekly cooking classes with instruction from San Francisco’s top chefs.

The Cooking Project was co-founded in 2013 by Executive Chef Daniel Patterson of the two-starred Michelin restaurant Coi and recipient of the 2014 “Best Chef in the West” award from the James Beard Foundation. Together with Co-founder and Director Sasha Bernstein, Patterson refers with gratitude to the many Bay Area chefs, food experts and authors who have enthusiastically responded by offering instruction; all food and equipment is provided at the San Francisco Cooking School’s facilities.

“We have welcomed many chefs, who have taught hundreds of kids simple, delicious food that they can make at home. The response from the young people has been overwhelmingly, viscerally positive. It is very clear that everyone, regardless of upbringing or experience, craves delicious food made with real ingredients,” says Chef Patterson.

Students have gotten their hands into a bowl of San Marzano tomatoes to make great pasta sauce with Chef Yoni Levy of Alta. They’ve made fresh pasta courtesy of Chef Robin Song of Hog & Rocks. Chef Suzette Gresham of Acquerello demonstrated how to truss a chicken. Chef Alex Ong tackled how to prepare a feast using the whole chicken and a few simple ingredients, emphasizing “how to cook nutritional meals for your family and for yourselves.”

*  Recent reports estimate there are nearly 1,000 young people without parents or guardians living on the streets of San Francisco; another 9,000 in Los Angeles and 20,000 under age 24 without roofs over their heads in New York City. The U.S. Department of Education puts the nation’s numbers at 1.2 million homeless K-12 youth, with only 4,000 shelter beds available [New York Times, 9/15/2014].

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