Ayulieth Reyes’ first day at Goodwill’s Culinary Skills program was almost her last. Inspired to enroll by dreams of one day opening her own restaurant, Reyes (known as “Yulie” to friends and colleagues) was discouraged when her initial attempt at making four large batches of cookies ended in an inedible mess, and she returned home riddled with self-doubt.
“I told my husband, ‘I don’t think this is going to work out for me,’” Reyes recalls. “If I’d been the manager and this had been a regular restaurant, I’d have fired myself.” Ten years of experience as a server and bartender had taught her that mistakes of any magnitude usually had dire consequences.
But instead, the following day program instructor Chef Kendra Blattenberg guided Reyes through the process of making all four batches again – this time successfully. It was the first step in understanding the art of baking, a process that demands patience and perseverance. “You have to go step by step and take your time,” says Reyes. “I had to learn that you need to wait for the right moment to drop one egg.”
She stuck with the program and by the end of 12 weeks found herself in demand from a number of high-end Tacoma restaurants. Reyes opted to join the staff at Tacoma’s legendary El Gaucho, where she is currently a pastry chef. “Goodwill changed my life,” she maintains. “Going through a program like this can help you jump ahead years in this industry.”
Reyes achievement is noteworthy, but her experience is not unique. The need for quality, trained culinary staff is huge, particularly in the Puget Sound region. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, by 2025 approximately 200,000 more line cooks and chefs will be needed to staff new full-service restaurants. “The demand from the industry side is bigger than it’s ever been,” says Tony Parker, a faculty member at Renton Technical College’s Culinary Arts program. “There’s such a need for anyone that has experience and training.”
People interested in entering the field have a variety of options in the South Sound. At Goodwill of the Olympics and Rainier Region’s Tacoma career training center, qualified participants can take a free 12-week course that provides hands-on experience at the student-run Neighborhood Bistro and earn a Culinary Essentials and Culinary Advanced Certificates. “We teach people how to work in a restaurant by letting them work in a restaurant,” says Chef Jeff Pratt, one of the program’s instructors. “But a huge part of our training has nothing to do with cooking and everything to do with how to be an employee.”
That approach has worked for Reyes. “100 percent of what I use in my work at El Gaucho came from Goodwill,” she says. “They give you the basics of what you need to be able to work anywhere. Each student comes from a different background, but they treat everyone the same – with respect.” The program has a 75 percent placement rate within 90 days of graduation.
At Renton Technical College, the program goes into more depth; students do 26 rotations of two weeks each, starting with basics like knife skills and kitchen safety and working their way up through sauces, soups, and the hot food line. Students are matched with chefs as part of a cooperative program and most already have jobs lined up by the second quarter. “If they’re not already working somewhere before they leave here, they don’t want a job,” says Parker. Graduates can earn a Culinary Certification from the American Culinary Federation. “It’s a higher standard,” says Parker. “They can continue on to become certified as sous chefs, chefs de cuisine, and more.”
Such programs are critical for an industry in need of people who not only possess culinary skills but also understand how to function effectively in a high-pressure environment. “These programs are extremely effective in the valuable skills they teach, and the opportunities presented,” says Chad Mackay, CEO of Fire & Vine Hospitality, the parent company for El Gaucho, The Lakehouse, Miller’s Guild, and other noted Northwest establishments. “They provide hands-on training, placement services, resume writing workshops and networking assistance when entering the workforce.”
Restaurants are actively looking for good people, to such an extent that some will visit the college to speak with students accompanied by their Human Resources staff. “I had a company here Friday asking for students for next October,” Parker notes. “That’s the way it is right now.”
Opportunities abound for local graduates as more Seattle restaurants open satellite locations in Tacoma and the number of restaurants continues to expand. “The scene has broadened,” says Pratt. “There’s a wider variety of options available for people here in Tacoma, Lakewood and Puyallup.”
As the industry has shifted, more high-end assisted living facilities are looking for sous chefs and pastry chefs. Those jobs are more predictable and less stressful than traditional restaurants, Parker explains. “You don’t have to wonder about how many people you’re going to serve so the stress of guessing is mostly gone. They’re really good jobs that pay well and you can work five days a week, eight hours a day.”
At El Gaucho, Reyes is also finding her new position more leisurely than the pressure cooker environment of her previous roles. “I have the time to take care of every single dessert I do,” she says. “I get to do research about what to put on the menu and the chef gives me a free hand to try new things.”
The unfortunate batches of cookies are gone but not forgotten; in some ways they sum up her time at Goodwill. “The staff there are really there for you, not just for the time you’re in school, but always,” she says. “That experience is something I can never pay back. If anyone is looking to get into the industry in a fast way, this program is a really good way to start.”
TACOMA AREA RESOURCES/LINKS
Goodwill in Tacoma’s Culinary Skills Training: Free hands-on and classroom culinary training for entry-level restaurant and additional food service jobs. Goodwill thrift store revenue helps fund the program.
Renton Technical College Culinary Arts Program: Using a professionally equipped kitchen, students will learn and practice knife skills, culinary safety and sanitation, advanced cooking methodologies, garde manger techniques, and more.
Bates Technical College Culinary Arts Program: Students prepare for a variety of careers in the culinary arts profession and for advanced education at other culinary institutions. Career paths include dinner cook, institutional cook, cook’s helper, baker’s helper, fry cook, and short order cook.
Clover Park Technical College Culinary Arts: CPTC’s Culinary Arts program offers everything students need to be successful in the culinary world, from classes in basic cooking skills to restaurant management. Students experience the fast-paced atmosphere in the real-world setting of the college’s upscale public dining facility
NRAEF’s Opportunity Youth-Restaurant Ready (OY-RR) Program: This is a national program to involve and empower disengaged youth to pursue a path of employment and life-long success. The goals of this program consist of establishing the restaurant industry as a model of a supportive, welcoming environment for opportunity youth and substantiating the restaurant industry as a model of employment, development and advancement.
FareStart Program Seattle: For young adults and students in the Seattle area where they can be mentored and work closely with the chef instructors.
Kids Camps Blue Ribbon Cooking: Provides children with cooking classes and time to learn from professionals within the community.
Need career advice? Heidi Smith can find you the experts as a local/national writer and reporter with special interest in improving the lives of families and individuals. Send your comments or questions to Heidi@classycopy.com. This column is sponsored by Goodwill of the Olympics & Rainier Region.