At-risk youth find catering jobs through program

Published in the November 23- December 6, 2016 issue of Morgan Hill Life

By Marty Cheek

Photo by Marty Cheek Kneaded apprentices Jocelyn Mondragon and Francisco Andrade prepare to cook for a catered event.

Photo by Marty Cheek
Kneaded apprentices Jocelyn Mondragon and Francisco Andrade prepare to cook for a catered event.

The world of restaurants beckons at-risk young people who go through the Rebekah’s Culinary Academy. Teenagers and young adults who successfully complete a 10-week basic culinary program can move on to serve as apprentices at Kneaded.

The training ground bakery program is sponsored by Rebekah’s Children’s Services and enables youths to learn real-world skills making baked goods and other products for catering events in Morgan Hill and Gilroy.

“We bake cookies, we bake scones, we bake breads,” said Jocelyn Mondragon, an apprentice in Kneaded.

“We also do the packing ourselves, copy the labels, make our own bags,” added Gabriela Puga, another apprentice in the program.

Every year about 60 students ages 15 to 25 go through the academy held in the kitchen and classrooms at Rebekah’s Children’s Services’s headquarter in Gilroy. Instructors are credentialed teachers and professionals in the food industry who guide the students through a 10-week course, with three-hour sessions meeting twice a week. Students learn food-prep skills such as using knives and other professional equipment properly, safety and sanitation and kitchen measurements. The students earn three to five high school credits, and develop self-esteem and self-discipline. Each year, 10 of these young people who graduate from the basic academy are selected to continue enhancing their skills through the Kneaded program. The apprentices can often be seen in their chefs uniforms at Gilroy Chamber of Commerce mixers and other events throughout the South Valley serving the cuisine that is cooked in the Rebekah’s professional kitchen.

“At first it was terrifying, you really didn’t want to talk to people,” Mondragon said of her first few experiences on a catering gig. “But through this program, with all the catering that we’ve done, it’s made us more comfortable to have a conversation with the people, rather than standing in the corner — because we have to interact with people.”
“I enjoy it. I like meeting people,” Puga added.

“You actually get to talk to people and have connections with people around town,” said Francisco Andrade, another apprentice in Kneaded. The young man learned to love cooking so much he plans to attend the International Culinary Center in Campbell and make his way into the world of professional chefs.

Puga also is considering pursuing a career in cooking. “I do enjoy it, but at the same time, I was actually thinking about studying psychology,” she said.

Mondragon is uncertain about her future career journey. “At the moment, I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do,” she said. “I kind of want to do culinary arts as well. I’m just staying here for a while and building work skills.”

In October, Rebekah’s Culinary Academy unveiled electronics equipment purchased with a $20,000 grant from the Gilroy Foundation’s Richard Hayes “Like a Rock” Industrial Arts Fund that is now being used to video-record culinary arts instruction and help students build their resumes and recipe development for working in the food industry. These include two large-screen TV and 24 laptops for students to teach job-readiness and computer skills.

“Our goal was to build a hub for our students that come here and learn and then apply for jobs or apply for schools,” Rebekah’s Instructor-chef Carlos Pineda said. “Now students can take pictures of their work and make a full-on presentation using the digital center, or they can make videos of themselves cooking and show their skills and creativity from there.”


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