July 18, 2024


Welcome to the Food

Cooking novices find ingredients for success in Kitchens for Good culinary crash course

The apprentices gather around the prep tables inside the commercial kitchen of San Diego nonprofit Kitchens For Good, chatting and laughing, happily trading culinary tips.

They responded to a call to bring in their favorite holiday recipe and prepare the dish at their training site, located at the Salvation Army’s Door of Hope campus in Birdland. That done, they are seeking plating advice from chef Amanda Palomino — a former two-time contestant on “Hell’s Kitchen,” celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey’s reality TV show — and now chef-instructor for Kitchen For Good’s culinary apprenticeship program, Project Launch.

Around them, staff cooks overseen by executive chef Ryan Rizzuto put finishing touches on food they’ve prepared from scratch for Kitchens for Good’s hunger relief program. Arriving volunteers form an assembly line to portion and package the 2,000 weekly ready-to-heat-and-eat nutritious meals that the organization distributes to vulnerable residents through local social service agencies, shelters and senior residences. Some apprentices volunteer after class to assist; all of the trainees, for a variety of reasons, are in search of their own fresh start after emerging from tough situations.

It’s hard to believe that this group, eight of the 19 enrolled in the current 25th class or “cohort,” is just 12 days into the initial stage of their 20-month apprenticeship program. Already, they seem comfortable in the kitchen environment.

During this introductory phase of their cooking classes, they learn basic “life skills and knife skills” while gaining confidence and professional training that will enable them to be hired, survive and thrive in jobs in the fast-paced culinary workplace. Chef Amanda aims to condense the essentials of her two-year culinary school experience into their three-month session.

Kitchens for Good opens Pacific Beach shop in time for holiday gift-giving

Looking for some gently used or vintage treasures or collectibles for your kitchen, dining room or holiday gifts? Or upscale kitchenware and cookware from Kitchens for Good’s brand partners?

Kitchens for Good’s new Pacific Beach shop had its soft opening on Dec. 14. The shop offers a carefully selected collection of preowned, donated culinary goods as well as celebrity favorite kitchenware and limited edition small-batch food and home items handcrafted by the organization’s apprentices and San Diego social enterprises.

Proceeds from all sales benefit the apprenticeship and hunger relief programs.

The Kitchens for Good shop is located at 980 Hornblend St., with phone number (619) 997-2081. The shop also accepts donations of gently used culinary items. For the latest opening details, visit kitchensforgood.org.

Nicole Sours Larson

After completing their 12-week classroom and cooking program, students move on to the workplace stage of the state-certified program, a 17-month, paid, on-the-job apprenticeship in the kitchens of one of Kitchens for Good’s 150 employer partners. The apprentices are in great demand, especially in this era of staff shortages, with many of the approximately 450 graduates of the six-year-old program gaining rapid promotions with their employers. Several are now restaurant executive chefs, including Yakub Abowath of The Kitchen, at the Bernardo Winery in Rancho Bernardo. Others have become restaurant general managers.

Some students are enrolled in the smaller, recently launched 10-person baking and food service management programs, the latter designed to train apprentices for restaurant management and front-of-the-house positions. All are based on the same 20-month, 2,440-hour apprenticeship training model, tuition-free for enrollees.

“What amazes me is how quickly they come together as a team,” said Dennis Crosby, director of programs at Kitchens for Good, who has a background in social services, mental health and addiction services. “They come together because of their common interest in food,” as well as an eagerness to remake their lives.

The apprentices, recruited through social service programs, public announcements and graduates’ referrals, all come from troubled backgrounds. They apply directly to the organization and go through an interview process that includes exposure to kitchen work routines. While most are in their 30s and 40s, participants’ ages range from the 20s to 60s.

Many have experienced homelessness, incarceration, domestic violence, substance abuse and badly broken families. Some grew up in foster care or were gang members; some have survived multiple types of trauma. That’s why, in this article, we’re using only their first names.

One thing they share: a desire to make the most of the opportunity offered of a fresh start in a food service career, building upon their interest in or passion for cooking.

“What amazes me is how quickly they come together as a team.”

Dennis Crosby, director of programs at Kitchens for Good, of the culinary apprentices

Crosby explained that restaurant experience is not required for admission into the culinary program, but an aptitude for cooking is helpful.

Jennifer Gilmore, Kitchens for Good CEO, noted that the concept for the San Diego apprenticeship program originated in 2015 with co-founder Chuck Samuelson, a chef, restaurateur and entrepreneur who started in the industry as a dishwasher at age 13.

“He saw that 90 percent of restaurant owners and managers started at the bottom and worked their way up. The skills you learn in food service serve you for life,” Gilmore said. “We have executive chef (graduates) who are now hiring our apprentices.”

Many apprentices have found a community where they can gain support with challenges that arise, receive ongoing career and life counseling and build a new network among fellow students and staff members of people they can count on, often replacing their broken family connections. For others, the program has empowered them to repair family relationships, through cooking.

Chula Vista resident Juan, 28, contributed the recipe for Pierna de Cerdo a la Ciruela (Braised Pork in Plum Sauce). His participation in the program enabled him to reconnect with his mom through cooking, which he loves. He re-created her recipe, which had no measurements, with her guidance.

“Now I’m on the right path,” Juan said.

Abdu, 34, a San Diegan whose mother is Moroccan, spent his childhood cooking with his mom in the kitchen and embraced the opportunity to gain professional culinary training. For his Chicken Bastilla, a festive traditional Moroccan dish, he spent hours on the phone with her, crafting her recipe.

“I’ve always been looking for a purpose,” Abdu said. “I had challenges, but when I came to this program, I finally found purpose.”

For Camilla, 38, a well-educated former preschool teacher who lost her job and home in the pandemic, as well as several family members to COVID, the apprenticeship offered a fresh start in an appealing field.

“I love to cook. I hope to have a food truck or do pop-up (restaurants),” she said.

For this class of apprentices, this holiday season offers hope that life is finally looking up.

For more information about Kitchens for Good, or to apply for the apprenticeship program, visit kitchensforgood.org.

Chicken Bastilla, prepared by apprentice Abdu, is a Moroccan spiced meat pie in phyllo dough.

Chicken Bastilla, prepared by apprentice Abdu, is a Moroccan specialty. The spiced meat pie is baked in a phyllo dough crust that’s topped with almonds and cinnamon.

(Ana Ramirez / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Chicken Bastilla

Apprentice Abdu worked over the phone with his Moroccan-born mother to re-create this favorite family holiday recipe. In northern Morocco, close to the Mediterranean Sea, this traditional delicacy is often made with shrimp or vegetables, but in the south it’s now typically made with chicken rather than the customary pigeon. Phyllo dough, or puff pastry or pâte feuilletée, is sold in many grocery stores’ freezer sections.

Makes two 12-inch round pies (about 12 to 16 servings)

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
3 pounds chicken, cut in pieces
2 ¼ pounds onions, sliced
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon ground ginger
2 cinnamon sticks
15 strands saffron
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 cups fresh parsley, chopped, about 1 large bunch
1 cup fresh cilantro, chopped, about half a large bunch
1 cup water
14 ounces blanched almonds, slivered
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, divided, plus extra for final sprinkling
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar, divided
1 tablespoon honey
8 eggs for scrambling, plus 1 egg, beaten, for brushing pastry case
8 ounces (1 cup) unsalted butter, divided
1 package (about 1 pound) commercial phyllo dough or puff pastry

Abdu spent hours on the phone with his mother to re-create her recipe for Chicken Bastilla.

Abdu spent hours on the phone with his mother to re-create her recipe for Chicken Bastilla.

(Ana Ramirez / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet or frypan over medium heat. Saute the chicken pieces, along with onions, turmeric, ginger, cinnamon sticks, saffron, salt and pepper. Stir occasionally for 15 minutes, leaving uncovered. Reduce heat to simmer. Add chopped parsley, cilantro and water and remove the cinnamon sticks. Simmer covered for 50 minutes.

While chicken cooks, prepare the almond topping: Place 1 tablespoon olive oil in a baking pan. Add almonds and toss to coat well. Toast in the preheated oven until lightly browned, about 5 to 8 minutes. Let cool. Coarsely chop or grind them in a blender or mortar and pestle, and mix with about 2 tablespoons ground cinnamon and about ¼ cup confectioners’ sugar, to taste. Set aside.

When the chicken is tender, remove from the pot and set aside. Add 1 tablespoon honey, 2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar and 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon to the cooking liquid and simmer uncovered until the liquid evaporates and the onions are golden brown. Remove chicken from the bone, shred and stir back into the onion/spice mixture.

Melt 2 to 3 tablespoons butter in a frypan. Add 8 beaten eggs and scramble until firm. Add to chicken/onion mixture.

To assemble: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Melt remaining butter. Coat two 12-inch cake tins with melted butter or nonstick spray. Place 8 to 10 sheets of phyllo in tins, first brushing each layer with melted butter, reserving unused sheets under a damp towel. Add the filling to the phyllo-lined pan. Fold the phyllo edges over the filling, brushing with butter after each layer. For the final layer, use beaten egg wash on top instead of butter. Bake about 20 to 30 minutes or longer, until golden.

Let cool for 20 to 30 minutes before slicing and serving. Sprinkle with the almond topping and cinnamon before serving.

Pierna de Cerdo a la Ciruela (Braised Pork in Plum Sauce), prepared by Juan.

Pierna de Cerdo a la Ciruela (Braised Pork in Plum Sauce), prepared by Juan, uses a marinade of cola for pork shoulder and adds pitted prunes in a sauce.

(Ana Ramirez / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Pierna de Cerdo a la Ciruela (Braised Pork in Plum Sauce)

A favorite Mexican dish traditionally served for Christmas dinner or New Year’s celebrations, this version comes from apprentice Juan, who re-created his mother’s recipe. Other versions found online call for adding 3 to 6 cloves of garlic and aromatic Provenҫal herbs (thyme, rosemary, oregano) to the marinade/cooking liquid or replacing half the cola with white wine for the marinade. Serve as part of a large holiday spread or as a main course with mashed potatoes.

Makes about 4 to 6 servings

2 ¼ to 4 ½ pounds pork shoulder
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 to 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 liter Coca-Cola (or other cola)
One 16-ounce bag pitted prunes
Plums, sliced (optional garnish)

Juan re-created his mother's recipe for Pierna de Cerdo a la Ciruela (Braised Pork in Plum Sauce), a Mexican dish.

Juan re-created his mother’s recipe for Pierna de Cerdo a la Ciruela (Braised Pork in Plum Sauce), a Mexican dish traditionally served for Christmas dinner or at New Year’s celebrations.

(Ana Ramirez / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Season the pork generously with salt and pepper. Meanwhile, heat oil in a skillet or saute pan over high heat. When hot, add the pork and sear on all sides. Remove from heat and set aside.

When pork is cool enough to handle, place in a roasting pan and add enough cola to cover it. Allow to marinate at least four hours, refrigerated.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Remove the roasting pan from refrigerator and let it warm to room temperature. Add prunes to pan and place in the oven. Braise until pork is tender, at least 2 to 3 hours.

Remove to a plate. To serve, spoon cooking liquid and prunes over the sliced pork. Garnish with sliced plums, if using.

Apple Stuffed Acorn Squash

Apprentice Eric, a passionate cook, re-created and updated this family recipe.

Makes 4 to 8 servings

2 acorn squash (about 1 ½ pounds each), rinsed
Salt, to taste
½ cup apple cider vinegar
2 teaspoons canola or olive oil
½ cup chopped onions
2 apples, diced, Gala or Granny Smith suggested
½ cup mixed dried fruit (raisins, cranberries, cherries, etc.)
⅛ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon fresh minced sage
½ teaspoon fresh thyme
8 ounces cooked crumbled pork or other sausage
¼ cup chopped walnuts
¼ cup maple syrup
2 teaspoons brown sugar

Eric shows off his Apple-Stuffed Squash, a family recipe that uses apples, crumbled sausage, dried fruit and brown sugar.

Eric shows off his Apple-Stuffed Squash, a family recipe that incorporates apples, crumbled sausage, dried fruit and brown sugar.

(Ana Ramirez / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut squash in half and discard seeds. Salt halves lightly and place cut-side down on a baking sheet. Sprinkle vinegar over the hard top of squash. Tent with foil and bake until the squash is just tender (about 45 minutes).

While the squash cooks, heat oil in a large frypan and saute the onion, apples, dried fruit, cinnamon and herbs until the apples are tender, before adding the sausage and walnuts. Cook until sausage is done. Turn the cooked squash cavity-side up, brush with the vinegar remaining in the pan and fill with the apple mixture. Brush the edges with maple syrup, sprinkle with brown sugar and bake until the sugar and filling are just starting to brown, checking after 5 to 10 minutes. Serve.

Sours Larson is a San Diego freelance writer.