Andrew Aczel joined the program ChefsGo 1.0 straight out of high school. Coming from a long line of chefs, Aczel felt drawn to the profession. While he had helped with his parent’s catering business since he was 8 years old, Aczel still was not completely sure he wanted to dedicate himself to culinary school, yet.
“I thought the ChefsGo program would be a good way to see if this is what I really wanted to do before going full fledged into (culinary school),” Aczel said. “It’s almost like a trial culinary school.”
Having completed the program, Aczel is a pantry chef at Waypoint at 1480 Quarterpath Road, where he makes salads, appetizers and desserts.
Students learn skills needed to work in the kitchen and are set up with paid internships through ChefsGo 1.0, a culinary workforce development program at Thomas Nelson Community College.
Robin Carson, the program coordinator and an adjunct professor at Thomas Nelson, said even though she’s retired from her career in the hospitality industry, she started the program because there is a need for skilled restaurant workers in Williamsburg.
“For the longest time while I was working, I knew that there was a need for this kind of programming, and it did not exist,” Carson said. “I figured I’ve been whining and complain about it for long enough, I should be part of the solution.”
Planning the program
Carson said she planned out the program because unlike area chefs who had full-time jobs, Carson was retired and had the time to organize it. She adopted a culinary curriculum she found in Florida and brought it back to Williamsburg. The local chefs involved with the program customized it to fit their needs and then implemented it in ChefsGo.
To apply to ChefsGo, students must attend a mandatory interest meeting, submit their application by a deadline as well as be 18 years old.
After applications are submitted, potential students go on a kitchen tour with one of the chefs. Later, one or two the program’s cooperating chefs and a representative from Thomas Nelson interview the applicants in person. Then the chefs and program coordinators look over the reference sheets to decide who will be accepted.
“Since there are not prerequisites to the program other than applicants being 18, it’s more about their attitude and our combined feeling about their success in this program,” said Carson.
The classes meet for 11 weeks on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 3 to 7 p.m. The first three weeks are classroom learning on topics such as sanitation, culinary math and nutrition. The next eight weeks are hands-on kitchen work, and some field trips to observe working restaurant kitchens.
Carson said students cannot miss a single day of class in this program. Then the students do a mentorships, where they train under area chefs for about about 15 weeks. In total, the program lasts just less than than six months.
In the classroom
Chefs from the area teach the classes, showing students the exact skills they want them to possess.
While ChefsGo gives local chefs the skilled workforce they need, it also provides students a chance to break into a new career field.
Another ChefsGo graduate, Jeffery Rouse, 25, had tried to break into the automotive industry but was having a hard time finding work.
“Basically I was unemployed at the time and was trying to find possibly a new career,” Rouse said. “I decided to take a shot and see what would happen.”
Describing himself as “more of a natural labor worker than a desk worker,” Rouse said he enjoyed the program because it has a hands-on learning approach.
While completing the program reassured students like Aczel that this was the path they wanted to take, not all students who start ChefsGo find themselves wanting to continue.
“There will be students who will enter the program and determine that being in the kitchen is not really what they want to do, and they will leave the program before they start their mentorship,” Carson said.
Carson said this is actually a positive outcome because instead of a chef putting a ton of training into a new employee who quits after a month, the chef has only lost the time put into the classes they taught. Students also gain a better idea of what they are looking for in a career.
The program finishes when students enter a mentorship with one of the chefs.
“Once you are with them you’re like an apprentice, so it’s like an internship where you’re going in and your learning more specialized skills based on what they are interested in,” Aczel said. “Our mentor ended up being based on what our personal interests are.”
The mentorship is paid — students earn $10 an hour — and Aczel said that pay along with the scholarship money students receive, makes the program pay for itself “and then some.” Every student in last year’s ChefsGo program received scholarship money.
After the internship ends chefs may offer the students a job. Rouse now works at the Hound’s Tale at 515 Prince George St. and plans to remain employed there for the foreseeable future.
While Aczel works at Waypoint now, he plans to go on to culinary school when he is 20 or 21 years old. In culinary school, students need to take wine and cheese classes to graduate but they can’t take them until they 21, so decided Aczel to knock out some general education classes at a local college and work in the kitchen until then.
“I’m already learning a lot here, I figure I might as well learn as much as I can while I’m here,” Aczel said. One of his bosses is a former instructor at the Culinary Institute of Virginia, which is Aczel’s dream school.
“I have him kind of right there with me every single day,” Aczel said. “Any kind of question I have I can go to him and ask, so it’s nice having that kind of opportunity. Its almost like you have your own personal instructors now.”
Carson said all six of the graduates from ChefsGo 1.0 are now employed.
The application process for this year’s class of ChefsGo has already ended; classes will start in the spring. The next class students will be able to apply to starts in spring 2019.
For more information visit Thomas Nelon’ s Community College web page for ChefsGo, or call the college at 757-825-2937 .
Amelia Heymann can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on twitter @HeymannAmelia.