Shelter House makes chefs out of the homeless

BY ARIANA WITT | MAY 11, 2011 7:20 AM

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Thomas Case's dream is to work as a cook for a nursing home or assisted-living facility, and he doesn't plan on letting the fact that he's homeless stand in the way of that.

"I've always had a passion for food," Case, 44, said. "When I was married, I'd always do the cooking for my wife and kids. I like spicy food, but the girls didn't like that very much. But I know cooking for them is a lot different from cooking for several people."

Case has been homeless for five months and no longer cooks for his family. But he hasn't allowed either to change his interest in food.

With the help of a new culinary program at the Iowa City Shelter House, Case and many others will get the opportunity to follow their love of cuisine.

Culinary Starts is a 12-week program that allows homeless people in Iowa City to learn the basics needed to become a cook.

"Iowa City is so saturated with restaurants and catering businesses and so many opportunities for someone to get into the food market," said Phoebe Trepp, the director of program development at the Shelter House. "We wanted to make sure our people are prepared for that level of employment."

Case is the program's first graduate, and he received word on Monday that he had passed the ServSafe certification program.

Two people are currently enrolled in the program.

Participants will take part in a high-end cuisine night with a guest chef on June 2 in the Old Brick in collaboration with Kirkwood Community College.

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Trainers stress kitchen safety and sanitation to the would-be cooks, Trepp said, and they require students to have a firm understanding of both before they are allowed to move on to making meals.

"I think a lot of business owners value that knowledge, and our trainees seem eager to learn and understand those skills," Trepp said. "I hope business owners will see them as beneficial to their business and are willing hire them on."

On Tuesday, Case helped prepare meatball hoagies for Shelter House residents, though he said his favorite thing he's learned to prepare is potato salad.

"I like to add kalamata olive oil brine to specialize it and really set it off, flavor-wise," he said.

Sam Kron, the head chef and trainer at the Shelter House, said four-star dinners aren't usually on the menu.

"We usually do home-style stuff," Kron said. "You don't really get fancy here. We're just trying to make what you could easily make at home."

Kron said the trainees serve around 150 meals per day. Those meals include catered dinners to the University of Iowa Phi Kappa Psi fraternity.

Culinary Starts has also started a partnership with the UI Hospitals and Clinics, catering business lunches, Trepp said.

The program was modeled on FareStart, a 19-year-old Seattle based organization that worked with Iowa City's Shelter House during its development.

Amy Ellingson, a network manager for program in Seattle, said graduates of the 16-week program have experienced an 80 percent job placement rate since the program began. Roughly 5,000 students are enrolled in the program.

"I'm proud of the Iowa City shelter for starting small and not filling up its space with students who have nothing to do," Ellingson said. "It's fantastic to see this model is being replicated, because it really helps to change a person's life."

Trepp said she would like to see the program grow to around six trainees at one time. Case said he would encourage anyone in a similar situation to take part in the training.

"Even if you have a slight interest in the culinary arts, this is a great program to give you more of an understanding," he said. "So go for it."

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