Catering to a dream: Louisville’s Chefs for Success program helping clients build new lives

By: David Ibata

When students of the Chefs for Success Culinary Arts Training program of The Salvation Army in Louisville, Kentucky, complete their studies and graduate, many want to do more with their new skills than hire on at a restaurant. Sam Ford, for example, wants to help homeless people like himself – and that may mean going into business for himself.

“With some of the people I’ve met at the shelter, I’d like to try them out and have them help me start catering,” Ford said. “I explain that the first run may be hard – nobody including myself is going to get paid because what we earn will go back into the company – but hopefully I can point them in a direction to get their lives back together, the same way I am doing.”

To accommodate dreams and ambitions like these, The Salvation Army Louisville Metropolitan Area Command has started a culinary post-graduate program, teaching students the ins and outs of the catering business.

“When students graduate from Chefs for Success, at least 25 to 50 percent say, ‘I want to cater, I want to own my own business, I want to own a food truck,’” said Wendy Rothfuss, a professional chef and caterer hired last fall to set up and teach the course.

“There’s a need for further education,” Rothfuss said. “I’m building a curriculum for a class that can be taught three to four times a year for graduates of Chefs for Success.”

Chefs for Success is an intensive, 10-week course that teaches its enrollees – men and women with a history of financial struggles and, often, homelessness – the requisite skills to enter the hospitality field, leading to a living-wage job and eventual self-sufficiency.

“We have restaurants calling us, asking for students,” Rothfuss said. “This program makes it possible for me to work with people individually to see their skill level so that I can match the right student with the right restaurant job.”

The Novak Family Foundation provided a $35,000 one-year grant to launch the catering training and service program. The grant also enhances Chefs for Success to more fully develop student recruitment, job placement and continued connections with fellow graduates and the program.

The first catering class, with nine students, started in January. It is offered at no charge to culinary school graduates. Students meet for three hours twice a week for seven weeks at Louisville Command headquarters, the former Male High School on Brook Street.

The curriculum covers such topics as converting recipes, measurements, event planning, presentation and budgeting.

Students also participate in The Salvation Army’s nascent catering program, started by Rothfuss as an adjunct to the school. “I’m trying to build that up as a business so that it can be rolled back into the program and continue,” she said.

The operation catered three in-house events last autumn and is now booking outside functions.

“Each student has to help at one of our catering events so they can get some experience,” Rothfuss said. “At the end of the course, we’ll have a tasting. We’ll make things on the menu that we’re creating for our catering menu and invite people in the area – other nonprofits and businesses – that might be interested in booking us.”

Ford, for his part, volunteers mornings in the Louisville Center of Hope shelter kitchen before going to work in the deli of a local Kroger.

He said he never would have made it this far without the prodding of daughter-in-law Audrey Ford, who first told him about the Chefs for Success program; and the encouragement of a friend, Vernshell Evans. “I have a disability, depression, and there were times I was down and didn’t want to go; she was one of the people by my side motivating me and pushing me.”

Now, Ford wants to do likewise for his fellow shelter residents.

“I appreciate being able to volunteer because, when it comes time for me to switch and follow that career in catering, I’m getting experience at the shelter,” Ford said. On White Flag nights when cold weather doubles the number of people coming in, for instance, he can do menu planning to ensure there’s enough food for everybody.

“I want to take this culinary experience and expand it every way I can to help people.”