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Home Alumni Alumni News Transforming at-risk youth into culinary leaders

Transforming at-risk youth into culinary leaders

Some of Calgary's top chefs are working with at-risk youth this summer to inspire them to build upon their culinary talents.

SAIT's Culinary Campus has teamed up with the United Way of Calgary and Area to encourage vulnerable youth to complete their high school education by tapping into their passion for food and cooking.

Rupert Kaupp, Academic Chair of SAIT's Professional Cooking program, says the Introduction to Cook Apprenticeship program will provide the students with early experience to give them a leg-up on their way to culinary careers. He initiated a partnership with United Way's youth program, which offers support and co-funds the students' tuition.

"Often, at-risk students don't like the traditional way of learning," Kaupp says. "Cooking is a hands-on job where talent and passion comes into the learning."

Tapping into interests and aptitudes

Fifteen program participants have been taking classes at Culinary Campus since May. The students - who were identified by their school administrators for being at-risk for reasons ranging from learning disabilities to personal and socio-economic disadvantages - all demonstrated an interest or aptitude in culinary arts prior to starting the program.

Kaupp personally interviewed the applicants and chose those he thought could most benefit and seemed ready to take on specialized career training. He says he's already seen a huge improvement in many of the students' confidence.

Program participant Kayla Dorey has no doubt that she'll be pursuing a culinary career.

"I was cooking since before I could reach the top of the stove. I had to use the stepping stool to get up there to make my Kraft Dinner," says Dorey.

The students are learning cooking techniques, knife skills, food safety and first aid from SAIT chef instructors. When course work wraps up in mid-August, students will have the opportunity to apprentice in restaurants throughout the city.

"The apprenticeships give students that real-world learning outside of class, and in some ways it's more structured than regular school, because attendance is even more important than it's ever been in their life," says Kaupp.

Meeting Calgary's culinary leaders

Paul Rogalski, SAIT alumnus and chef at Calgary's Rouge Restaurant, talks with one of the students in SAIT's All In For Youth culinary program. On Wednesday, July 15, the students were visited by six of Calgary's leading chefs, including Rouge's Paul Rogalski, Chris Kaiser of the Joey Restaurant Group, Chris Mercier from the Delta Bow Valley, Chartwells' Peter Horlacher, Luke Skrzyniarz of Earls, and David Flegel from the Hyatt.

The chefs talked with the students about working in the industry and offered them the opportunity to apply for apprenticeships in their restaurants after the classroom portion of the program wraps up.

"The idea was to bring in a motivator right before the end of the term," Kaupp says. "Something to wow the students so they can say ‘Look who is coming here to see me. And wants to hire me,' rather than just connecting them with an employer and telling them to apply."

Dorey, who has a 10-year-plan to open her own restaurant, is keen to take advantage of the apprenticeship.

"They've given me the opportunity to put SAIT on my resume and they've brought in these chefs to meet with and potentially get a job at a really high-end place," says Dorey. "I think I'd probably cry or scream if I got one!"

She hopes more programs like this will be offered in the future.

"It's a head start in life. I think this would be awesome if they could start something like this for every trade. The opportunities are endless."

Connecting kids with new role models

The Culinary Campus program is just one segment of the United Way's All In For Youth initiative, which focuses on high school completion. Joan Gauthier, All in For Youth Program Manager/School Liaison, says connecting kids with adult role models is one of her program's key mandates. She loves that Calgary's top chefs are doing their part to usher in the next generation of cooking professionals.

"Learning these skills gives them a great foot in the door, but even bigger than that is SAIT's relationship to the food industry in Calgary and the exposure to food colleagues in the city," Gauthier says.

"These kids are working alongside some pretty amazing guest chefs and notable individuals. And that mentorship aspect is a huge part of our work."