Star-Bulletin Features

Robin Abad, left, and Heidi Cournede mixed the batter for waffles during a cooking session at the Richards Street YWCA last month.

Chefs in training

At Café Y, high school students
learn the skills needed for restaurant jobs

By Betty Shimabukuro

Eating is allowed in this classroom, and that's barely the half of it. Students here are expected to carry knives and to play with fire.

This is Café Y, a job-training program for high school students who might otherwise drop out. It teaches the basics of restaurant work in the real-life setting of the Richards Street YWCA restaurant kitchen.

The final exam is a student-run dinner for family and friends, complete with dishes such as Peppered Pork Loin with Apple-Ginger Chutney, cooked and carried to the table by the graduates.

And then they get jobs. The 12-week learning experience culminates in an internship with one of the YWCA's restaurant partners.

It's a significant head start for a high school kid with a culinary mind.

The Richards Street Y turns 75 next week as one of the state's oldest service organizations. This program is one of its newest, just passing the one-year mark. Begun last March, Café Y recently completed its fifth cycle, with students throwing their graduation dinner -- for 300 guests -- on May 25.

Steve Brown, right, went over the graduation dinner menu with Jane Joram, left, and Jun Yi Zhu.

A total of 105 have passed through so far, says program coordinator Kelli Malcolm. Eight were hired on by restaurants after their internships, the rest are either on track to graduate from high school or have gone on to community college.

Only two have dropped out, but as far as Malcolm is concerned, that's two too many. "Part of our responsibility is, if these children are dropping out, we have to try to get them back to school. We can't just let them go without any follow up."

Café Y is designed for teenagers who face what Malcolm calls "strenuous circumstances" that could keep them from completing high school. These range from financial problems, to family dysfunction, to difficulty learning.

"Some of these kids have had really tough lives so far," she says. "I think our program offers them something they aren't getting, either at home or at school."

Head instructor at Café Y is Steve Brown, former chef at Café Monsarrat, who quizzes incoming students on what they know of cooking terms such as blanching, emulsifying, medium dice. It's generally all a mystery. "We don't expect them to know a whole lot," he says. "Generally 95 percent of them don't know anything."

So he begins with the basics: "I make sure when I say 'spatula,' I pull out the spatula and everyone gets to hold it."

Lesson 1 is on the history of cooking. In a one-hour class period, he covers "caveman days to present time."

"Cooking's been around since the beginning of humanity," he'll tell them. "You have to imagine there was Grog in the cave, and then fire was discovered ..."

Fast-forward through cooking's great French heritage, through modern culinary styles, through types of restaurants and all the different jobs that make up the industry. "Then I say, 'Where you are, is at the beginning.'"

Soon, though, they're measuring, sharpening knives and learning basic cuts.

Their first actual dish is a basic tomato sauce, Brown says. "We give everyone the same ingredients: one onion, half a carrot, canned tomatoes, a couple cloves garlic." They're told how much to use of each item, but that's it.

When class ends, they compare results, to find that no two sauces are the same. "Usually there's one in there that's pretty close," Brown says. "Most of them aren't, though. They chop the veggies way to big or they don't cook it long enough or they put it all in a blender and it looks like baby food. Orange baby food."

Kelli Malcolm, center, program coordinator for Café Y, worked with students Paul Aguda, left, and Nelson Aquino, as they prepared for their graduation dinner last month at the YWCA's Laniakea Café.

The lesson learned: "This is the importance of How to Cook."

The program is free to the students, but requires a considerable commitment. They attend class after their regular school day ends and they work weekends in the YWCA restaurant, Café Laniakea.

Brown says the teaching gels during those weekend sessions, and he can detect enlightenment when he shows them how to fix eggs for breakfast service. "When they can flip their first over-easy egg, then you can see the light bulb turn on."

Café Y is funded by a $275,000 grant from the Oahu Workforce Investment Board, which also covers the students' salaries during their four-week restaurant internships.

Lucy Lopez, a junior at Roosevelt High School and one of the latest graduates, says the program has been good not just for her, but also for her parents, who no longer have to deal with her breaking house rules, such as curfew. "Before I kinda used to get into trouble, so they're happy. I'm doing something useful for a change."

On top of that, she's cooking for the family -- a recent swordfish pasta dish was a big hit. "They said they really liked it. Even my brother."

The students serve their internships at a range of restaurants, from Zippy's to Outback Steakhouse, from massive hotel dining rooms to the intimate Contemporary Arts Museum Café.

At Sam Choy's Breakfast Lunch and Crab, executive sous chef Dave Hamada says he's put three interns through the paces in his kitchen, and finds them ready to tackle basic work. "We can have them do minimal knife-skill stuff, like prepping, odds and ends in the kitchen."

Their education continues on the job, Hamada says, as they learn about kitchen safety, sanitation and -- perhaps most important -- attitude. "It's part of growing up, maturing, asserting themselves, good attitude, work habits."

One of the interns was kept on as a part-time cook.

many of the Café Y graduates are clear on their goals. Junior Robin Abad was already enrolled in the culinary program at Farrington High when he applied for the Y program, attracted by the promised internship. He'll be working at Outback Steakhouse this summer.

Abad's aim: "Be a chef, at least." But the dream doesn't end there.

"Being a chef is pretty good," he says, "but owning my own restaurant -- that would be really good."

Anniversary celebration

The YWCA marks the 75th birthday of its Richards Street location, Laniakea:

Tuesday: Ribbon-cutting ceremony at the refurbished health and fitness center, 9:30 a.m.

June 21: Open house, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., with Jamaican-themed menu at Cafe Laniakea, steel-drum and reggae music, tours of fitness facility. Free pupus served 3 to 6 p.m.

June 22 and 23: Fitness assessments, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.; aerobics classes, 9 to 11 a.m.; swim coaching, 2 to 4 p.m. All free.

Call: 538-7061, Ext. 216

Coming up: Looking back on 75 years, and envisioning the future of the Y, in Tuesday's Star-Bulletin

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