It’s minutes before the deadline on Markeila Young’s weekly cooking test.
“Go! Go! Go!” chants Charlatte Rue, Young’s friend and a fellow student, who’s already finished preparing her own dish.
The two women spoon roasted beets onto a plate, arranging them in a blood-red pile against a baked Cornish game hen. Hands trembling, they finish off the ensemble with a spoonful of gravy and a pinch of chopped parsley.
“Two minutes,” a man’s voice booms from the conference room next door. Markeila whisks her plate off the counter and disappears.
Will James, another student who’s still plating his dish, isn’t quite ready. With quiet concentration, he dabs raspberry-flavored yogurt onto slices of uncooked zucchini, careful to allot the same amount per slice. Then he’s off too, just seconds under the buzzer. They’re all headed to the conference room next door, where their instructor, Chef Mark R. Jasinski CEC—he of the booming voice—waits with fork and knife in hand.
Markeila and Will present their plates to him and hover nearby, trying to remember to breathe. This is one of their final cooking challenges in the Culinary Arts Training Program at Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry (LMM) on Cleveland’s east side, and they both want to perform well.
Chef Jasinski studies Markeila’s plate through his black-rimmed glasses. He raises an eyebrow and gives her a little smile.
“You forgot I hate beets,” he says. She laughs, breaking the tension a little. He takes a bite of hen and chews. He nods. “This is cooked perfectly— nice and tender,” he says.
“Thank you, Chef,” she says, seeming to brace herself for what’s next. Making a note on an evaluation sheet, the chef says that the gravy is maybe a touch thick. “But great work overall,” he adds. With that, Markeila exhales and stands aside; it’s Will’s turn.
Will, who is in his 60s, earns solid marks for his breaded quail, but Chef Jasinski is not impressed with the zucchini garnish: “Lesson for everyone. Don’t garnish with raw vegetables, OK? Nobody wants to eat raw vegetables.” Everyone nods, breathing easier. Class is over for today.
For Markeila, Will, and the other two students in this particular section of LMM’s culinary program, the stakes are a lot higher than just impressing the teacher. They’re here to change their lives. Though it’s open to anyone enrolled in one of LMM’s many social services programs, the program aims to train people with barriers to employment, including people who have been incarcerated, with the goal that they’ll find stable cooking careers.
Students graduate with three months of classroom experience and two months of kitchen volunteer hours. After that, the aim is to move them into full-time jobs at restaurants, hotels, schools, or hospitals.
As of November 2014, 120 students had enrolled. Half of those didn’t complete the program, usually due to external pressures or because they discover cooking isn’t for them. But of those who remained, many—51 at the last count—found jobs.
Chef Jasinski is head of the program, which is in its second full year. Under his tough yet encouraging supervision, students get a background in culinary history, food science, safety, and, of course, an arsenal of cooking techniques and recipes.
Why cooking classes? Two reasons: opportunity and access. There are many culinary jobs available in Northeast Ohio, and kitchen positions tend to be particularly accessible to people with difficult backgrounds.
“The food business is a very open business,” says Chef Jasinski, who worked in restaurant and institutional kitchens before starting with the LMM program in 2012. “As long as you have that love and passion, you can be accepted very easily.”
“I always joke,” he says smiling, “You don’t pick your in-laws, and you don’t pick the cook standing next to you, either.”
Part of what Chef Jasinski finds himself doing with each class—a new group starts every month—is coaching his students out of the cloud of low self-esteem they’ve often developed because of their backgrounds.
Solomon Foy heard about the LMM program while he was still serving a five-year prison sentence for aggravated robbery. He says when he first started classes, he acted as if he were still in jail.
“In prison, you learn not to talk and mind your business,” he says. “So when I got out, I still had that mentality. I kept to myself. But Chef Mark took that shield up off me. He let me know I’m not in prison anymore. Now was my time to learn to be myself.”
It was a lesson he was able to pass along during his volunteer hours, when the students cook meals for the various homeless shelters that LMM serves. One night, after a long day in the kitchen, Solomon helped deliver meals to LMM’s Men’s Shelter at 2100 Lakeside Avenue. He ran into a high school friend who’d been living there—and on the verge of giving up hope. Solomon told him about the culinary training program, and his friend said he’d consider enrolling.
“I felt like just me being there, serving a meal I cooked, I was able to show him that there is something better on the other side of the tunnel,” he says.
Solomon was one of the class’s most gregarious and outspoken members, as well as a solid and confident cook, according to Chef Jasinski. His curiosity and humor shine through in a weekday classroom lecture about starches. When Chef Jasinski shows a slide showing potato varieties, Solomon’s hand shoots up at the question of which one the students would recommend for making a potato salad.
“Anything but a Yukon Gold,” Solomon declares.
In his high-decibel but friendly boom Chef Jasinski adds that this is because Yukon Gold will give the salad a funky color, “making it look like the potatoes are dying.”
The talk drifts to an in-kitchen seafood lab later that week, when students will have to taste octopus and oysters. Solomon lets out a hoot.
“Oh boy,” he says. “When do we have to eat those? I’m going to have to psych myself up.” His classmates laugh and holler in agreement.
Chef Jasinski gives a patient smile. “Look, the longer you think about it, the less likely you are to want to eat it.” And when the dreaded octopus tasting came, it turned out to be a non-event. “It’s just like having a whole bunch of rubber bands in my mouth—chewing and chewing and chewing,” Solomon says. “But it didn’t taste that bad.”
Chef Jasinski says that’s part of the training each term: getting students to try food that’s unfamiliar to them, from oysters to rabbit to papaya. He also incorporates other challenges, such as weekly cooking challenges and contests to see who can disassemble a chicken the fastest. The winner chooses which game bird to cook in the next lab.
From Classroom To Career
Students start applying for jobs a few weeks in advance of their graduation.
Charlatte Rue, the student who cheered Markeila through her hen plating, landed an interview at a hotel kitchen before her volunteer hours even begin. The job didn’t pan out, but Charlatte, who was a nurse before a felony conviction required her to leave that profession, doesn’t feel discouraged.
“This program gives you skills, so I feel like I know what I’m doing,” she says. “More important, it showed me I have a passion for cooking. And that’s what you really need to make it in this business,” she says. “Without that drive, you’re not going anywhere.”
It’s a lesson Chef Jasinski says he tries to teach at the outset of each new term.
“Cooking has always been one of those businesses that attracts the curious,” he says. “If you’re lucky—like me and so many others— you find out you love it. Once you’re hooked, you can turn that into a great career.”