week 35: this week i'm gonna... give youth a pathway to employment
Toni Elka grew up as the oldest of five in a small factory town in Connecticut. By age 10, she was cooking meals for her entire family. When she graduated high school, she had no plan and little guidance. “I didn’t know how to go to college,” she says. “In my family, college was not a priority. It took me a long time to finish." Elka received her Bachelor degree at age 35 from the Mass College of Art.
Recognizing the importance of adult role models and building off her experience in the food industry, Elka launched Future Chefs in 2008. Focused on the culinary arts, the program supports students and helps guide them into a career. “The program works in the passage between adolescence and adulthood,” explains Elka. A lot of kids “end high school with no plan, no sense of strong adult community that they can connect with to help them make that passage.” In a practical sense, these students also need to acquire a lot of what Elka calls, “soft skills”: skills like time management, how to write a business email and how to communicate professionally. “Those early-earning years are crucial for lifetime earnings potential.”
Elka states, “There are a lot of monikers put on kids these days - like ‘at risk’ or ‘disadvantaged’ - where all the weight is on them,” she says. "Many come from communities that lack opportunity," she continues, "but the kids themselves are bursting with potential. They just need a way in. Engage them meaningfully, and they will thrive."
You can see more about Elka and Future Chefs in the video below.
Future Chefs was founded in 2008 and is a high-impact, school-to-career program that prepares youth for quality early employment and post-secondary opportunities in the culinary field. The program provides guidance and authentic work experience for students who lack support and professional networks, and who may not have a plan for after high school.
Future Chefs’ model is based on the understanding that every student is unique and flourishes in settings that provide high expectations, opportunities for growth, and positive interactions with adults. Their three phase school-to-career engagement incorporates collaboration with schools and educators, nonprofit partners, and chefs and restauranteurs to provide education, preparatory and work-based experiences, youth development, leadership opportunities and referral services.
- Phase One: Culinary Exploration - High school Sophomores, Juniors, and Seniors explore the culinary arts industry through direct connections with successful chefs and other food professionals to learn both kitchen and life skills
- Phase Two: Developing a Career Plan - High school Seniors work closely with the Future Chefs Staff to create individualized plans for work and study after high school; apprenticeship, culinary school, and the restaurant industry are core components
- Culinary Success - Future Chefs advises each high school graduate as they transition to work, school, or post-secondary training to ensure they are taking steps to implement their plan successfully; students begin to give back to the program by volunteering at events and becoming peer leaders
Since 2008, Future Chefs has reached over 500 students in the Boston area.
Robert Giunta always knew he wanted to be a chef. From the time he was young, his parents often found him in the kitchen cooking the family’s dinner.
As a 16 year-old high school student in Everett, MA, he had already begun thinking about his first job. He knew he wanted to work with food, but wasn’t sure how to turn it into a career.
Recognizing Robert’s passion for cooking, his culinary teachers at school suggested he contact Future Chefs to learn more about the organization. Finding something completely separate from school sparked Robert’s interest, but more importantly, he was intrigued by the idea that there was a place that could help him become a chef.
Future Chefs industry-connected staff helped Robert plan for opportunities to learn and earn beyond what a high school cooking class could provide. Those years gave Robert the confidence he needed to think about working in high-end Boston restaurants.
After high school, Future Chefs recommended him for a garde manager position at Harvest restaurant in Cambridge, MA. The sous chef, a successful Future Chefs alum, mentored Rob as he made the jump from recent graduate to valued member of a skilled team. He has steadily advanced to line and grill cook and is mastering the career-level skills needed to go as far as his dreams can take him.
“You can come from humble beginnings and still be able to work in a kitchen with or without going to college,” he states. Robert’s belief is that options for a career go beyond traditional academics - while it may include a college education, it’s organizations like Future Chefs that help every young person find the right pathway.
Robert says that he would recommend Future Chefs to other young students because it helped him figure out exactly how he wanted to proceed with life after high school. “I don’t think I would be cooking if it weren’t for Future Chefs. Future Chefs was a big part of helping me get into a kitchen.”
Notes for this week:
- International Bacon Day is September 3rd - did you know there was an International Bacon Day?? And did you know that this existed?
- Our collective givetwig donation will purchase food for one month for Future Chefs Delivers students to prepare meals to serve 300 clients. Future Chefs Delivers is a new program which has students prepare and transport food bound for homeless and women’s shelters and other nonprofits like the Boys and Girls Club.
- For further information regarding Future Chefs, please check out their website.