Y.E.S. Chef! Youth Culinary Program pairs teens with top Asheville chefs

FUTURE OF FOOD: From left, Emily Willis, Lainey Williams, Brenda Vasquez, Skylar Honeycutt and Nate Worley of Erwin High School's Y.E.S. Chef team are pictured with chef Caitlin Wise in the kitchen at Cedric's Tavern on the Biltmore Estate. The students will soon wrap up the culinary training program with a cooking face-off against teams from three other local high schools. Photo courtesy of the Joseph Initiative

In July, Asheville’s food scene earned yet more media recognition, this time from the millennial travelers who read the trazeetravel.com web publication. For the 2018 Trazees Awards, readers picked Asheville as the No. 1 Foodie City in the world — beating out Chicago, Rome, Paris and New York.

As Foodtopia continues to earn worldwide accolades, the city will need young talent to staff the growing number of restaurants and push culinary boundaries in new and exciting ways. One new local program that’s designed to help Buncombe County youths gain a deeper appreciation for and understanding of the hospitality industry is the Y.E.S. Chef! Youth Culinary Program and Competition.

Y.E.S. Chef is a mentoring program developed by the Joseph Initiative, an Asheville-based nonprofit that partners with other organizations and individuals to offer community- and family-focused enrichment opportunities, most of which are currently aimed at helping teenagers learn life skills.

Tim Blekicki, Mission Health Project SEARCH instructor with The Arc of North Carolina and a member of the Joseph Initiative board of directors, says one of Y.E.S. Chef’s goals is to help students explore career possibilities in the culinary arts while gaining real-life experience in an industry that’s become a core part of Asheville’s economy. “Mentorship opportunities can help dispel some of the misconceptions about the [hospitality] industry at a critical junction in the youth’s career decision-making process,” he says.

For Y.E.S.’s inaugural year, teachers at four local schools — T.C. Roberson High School (paired with Dining Innovations at Biltmore Farms DoubleTree), Erwin High School (paired with the Biltmore Estate), Asheville High School (paired with Chestnut) and North Buncombe High School (working with Blue Ridge at The Omni Grove Park Inn) — were asked to select four students each who could work two hours a week on-site with the chef at the school’s partner restaurant leading up to a final cooking competition. In the kitchen each week, students learn fundamental culinary techniques and work on creating two healthy food items in preparation for the contest.

The program is also designed to be beneficial for participating local eateries. “We want to provide [the restaurants] with the next generation of the area workforce,” says Blekicki. “To solve the labor crisis and maintain employees, employers need to be thinking in innovative and outside-the-box ways. We hope the program gives these four businesses additional insight into the thoughts and needs of that next wave of employees who may make career decisions through a much different process than their parents did, with economic and societal concerns that simply did not exist 15 years ago.”

Chestnut executive chef Brian Crow says he’s relished the experience of working with the students. “I really enjoy the mentorship piece,” he says. Over at the Biltmore Estate, the infusion of “contagious enthusiasm” from the teenaged participants has made the experience wonderful for the staff, says executive chef Mark DeMarco, and he sees other potential benefits. “Programs like Y.E.S. enable Asheville to develop some homegrown cooks to help staff and someday open Asheville’s next great restaurant,” he says.

According to Tracey Johnston-Crum, Grove Park’s director of public relations and community outreach, chef James Lumley struggled to find something that interested him as a high school student, so working with teens brings things full circle. “Only when his English teacher assigned a self-exploratory research paper to determine what careers or industries he might be well-suited for did [he] discover the opportunity that could allow him to make a career in the kitchen. Chef saw this program as a chance to make a difference and return the favor to young people in our community,” she explains.

Teams of students were selected to represent each of the four schools in the program and ultimately compete in the inaugural Y.E.S. Chef! Competition on Saturday, Nov. 3. For the contest, each team will create two healthy dishes to be judged by a panel of local restaurant professionals, including chef Bruce Brown of Bruce’s Fabulous Foods and the WLOS show “Carolina Kitchen” and Gàn Shān Station owner Patrick O’Cain, as well as youths attending the event. The winning team will receive a traveling trophy to keep at their school for one year and chefs jackets for each team member.

“I would like to be a pastry chef for my career, so I wanted to join this program to gain experience of working in the kitchen. It’s been great so far to work with real-life chefs,” says Asheville High School student team member Luca Mele. The teacher in charge of Asheville High’s eight-week experience, Jacqueline Brown, says the program was a good fit for the school because its career technical education department seeks out business and industry partnerships. “We take every opportunity to enhance teaching and learning beyond the classroom,” she says.

Erwin High School teacher Lacey Grogran says working with the chefs has been a big confidence builder for her students, who are earning hours through the program to apply for their ProStart Certificate of Achievement. “For a few, this is the first time competing in anything,” she says. “[The] students have the opportunity to look at entry-level positions at Biltmore and get hired.”

Jill Sizemore, the Y.E.S. Chef teacher liaison from Roberson High, has been attending the sessions with her students and says she has learned a few kitchen tips and tricks during the process. She sees the program as beneficial even for students who don’t foresee pursuing a career in food. “We live in a community that is very dependent on our restaurant, hospitality and tourism industries. Even if jobs in these industries are not long-term career goals for my students, these are jobs that will help them pay for school and hopefully keep them from attaining too much debt as they further their education,” she says.

WHAT: Y.E.S. Chef! Youth Culinary Competition
WHERE: A-B Tech, Asheville campus, Magnolia Hospitality Education Center, 30 Tech Drive. josephcommunitycenter.org/events-tickets
WHEN: Saturday, Nov. 3, noon-4 p.m. (drop in any time within those hours). Tickets are $10 each and include samples of four food items and bottled water. Additional samples are available for $3 each.

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