Serving Up Opportunity

By / Photography By Dan Dry | June 01, 2016
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chef edward lee

Chef Edward Lee guides culinary apprenticeship program

In his book Smoke and Pickles: Recipes & Stories from a New Southern Kitchen, Edward Lee writes: “I find connections where others might see contradictions.”

An apprenticeship program with Lee at the helm is connecting Louisville at-risk youth with opportunities in the culinary field that otherwise would be the stuff dreams.

Four teenagers spent more than a year immersed in every function of Lee’s 610 Magnolia and MilkWood restaurants in Louisville, culminating in a graduation ceremony in March at Actors Th The group, which dubbed its experience “Smoke and Soul,” went from being green rookies to staging five pop-up dinners with menu items like smoked gouda and pig’s feet fritters under the guidance of James Beard Award nominee and “Iron Chef ” slayer Lee.

Incubated by YouthBuild Louisville, a Smoketown-based workforce training organization, and entrepreneurial generator IDEAS xLab, the culinary program seeks to build on a successful pilot phase with the ultimate hope of evolving into a brick-and-mortar, self-sustaining restaurant and foundation.

The connection has been made.

“In reality people are so quick to dismiss programs like these,” Lee said recently at 610, his contemporary Southern cuisine restaurant nestled in Old Louisville. “We were able to prove that with a very small amount of seed money we could create a curriculum and experience reallife lessons, real-life emotions.

“I proved at my restaurant that they can go from being kids to becoming employees. They’ve gone from being not just employable but pretty valuable. You can mold eager, young, hungry kids into a valuable part of an established business.”

For Nikkia Rhodes, 19, the experience opened her eyes to a world of possibility.

“I feel like our generation is kind of lost,” said Rhodes, a culinary student at Jefferson Community and Technical College. “We don’t know what the right places are. I think it’s really important that we have guidance from strangers. I think the best thing about this program is getting to network and getting to learn. If it wasn’t for this program I wouldn’t know what I wanted to do with my life.

“It’s amazing and very humbling.”

The Kindness of Strangers

Lee knows all too well the importance of mentors. Growing up in the Canarsie neighborhood of East Brooklyn, the young Korean-American found comfort in graffiti.

Despite his rebellion, a neighborhood cop and random teachers along the way made sure he didn’t stray too far. They saw something in a kid who had a lot of time — and Krylon cans — on his hands and little supervision.

“I never understood that when I was younger,” Lee said. “I just know that, coming full-circle, probably more than my parents or anyone else these random people had more to do with me staying on the straight-and-narrow path than anyone else.

“To me I think it’s just about randomly giving help to people that need it. What I saw in these students were young people who were smart and motivated and talented and ready to join the workforce, ready to take on the world.”

All they needed was a chance.

“Everyone says the only thing that was holding us back was the places where we came from, the things we were faced with,” said Rhodes, a Western High School graduate. “It’s the strangers that you meet along the way that help show you the way. Th at’s what I’m most appreciative of.”

Ragene McKellery, 19, had never worked at a restaurant prior to being recruited into YouthBuild’s class.

“Before I worked at 610 I was bouncing from job to job,” said McKellery, who was approached by Lee about enrolling in the apprenticeship program. “We’re a pretty well-rounded group. At first no one starts out well-rounded. There were a lot of rough edges.”

Learning Life’s Lessons

Those were smoothed out by lessons learned in the crucible of a restaurant — and not limited to just the kitchen. The group developed menus for the pop-up dinners and took away new skills in the process.

“Patience and conflict resolution,” Rhodes said about the most valuable lessons learned. “The customers, what they see are the smiling faces — everyone is happy, everyone is working together as a team. But behind closed doors there’s a lot of conflict and a lot of butting heads. A lot of this has been learning a lot of team-building skills.”

McKellery learned that no one person is greater than the whole.

“It’s all about compromising,” he said. “Everybody can’t have everything their way but we also have to come together as a group for a final decision. I feel like that’s what we do. That’s what makes our dinners so successful.”

That gained wisdom goes to the core of YouthBuild’s mission. Centered in Louisville’s Smoketown neighborhood, the idea is to help young people learn marketable skills that will translate into the rejuvenation of a neighborhood on the rebound from tough times.

About 40 young people are involved in YouthBuild programs that include construction trades, nursing, environmental education and culinary, with 25 more added during the summer. Initiatives also include a horticultural aspect to connect participants to food from the farm to the table.

“They’re out there on their own trying to make their own way. It really speaks to their motivation level,” Lynn Rippey, executive director of YouthBuild, said of the culinary interns. “Ed has done a great job pulling the kids back together when they have skirmishes.

“That’s happening in the workplace anyway. But I think he took real special care to ensure that from his side they understood the process and the business side of things.”

The Teacher Becomes the Pupil

The goal is to build on the successful foundation of the pilot program to establish a self-sustaining initiative. What that might look like is anyone’s guess, but several candidates are waiting to enroll.

Lee, who envisions a sophomore class of up to a dozen interns, continues to work with YouthBuild and xLab to fine-tune programming and calls the second year of the program more important than the first.

“I’m very hopeful for the future of the program,” Lee said. “We’ve established a base and we can work off that. It started with a germ of an idea [and grew] to all of a sudden having an opportunity to make a lasting impression.

“We have to be very careful with how we grow. We can work with predictable results in the future. If we can prove that also in year two, we can say, ‘Wow, this is something that has legs.’ It’s important to show we can sustain success.”

Rippey said a couple of business development ideas are in the pipeline and that “we are certainly interested in keeping the program in Smoketown. We want to develop it as a part of our workforce development program.”

The four original graduates are willing to help grow the initiative. That’s a testament to the bonds built over more than a year while working in two of Louisville’s best restaurants.

“The fact that, at an age when they should be out partying or going to prom, instead they’re getting up early, going to school and coming here and catching double-shifts, says so much about these kids,” Lee said. “I’m not interested in helping every kid. I’m interested in identifying the kids who for no reason had all these strikes against them.

“But they’re smart and willing to put in the hard work. I try and take some of the worry of life out of the equation so they can just deal with learning and being a better citizen and growing. If that can happen they can have a little fun.”

No one said it would be easy.

“I don’t baby them or tell them life will be any different. They have to expect a lifetime of work and struggle,” Lee said. “It’s unfortunate but you can also do something you love. If you love it, it doesn’t feel like work sometimes. You get to appreciate life in a different way.”

The learning continues: The Smoke and Soul interns will stage a dinner at Berea College in the fall.

“I’ve learned so much from this experience,” said McKellery, a North Hardin High School graduate. “We were able to put our problems and differences aside and come together and make good food. I’m proud to put my name on it. As much hard work that goes into it, we put our blood, sweat and tears into it, we do it because of the people that come to our dinners. The icing on the cake is seeing the expressions on their faces. We did this — this is what we made.”

Where some might see contradictions, Lee finds connections. That is nowhere more powerful than the relationship with his four apprentices — the original Smoke and Soul.

“I always say the original part of this plan was for them to come on and for me to teach them,” Lee said at the graduation ceremony in March, choking back tears. “What I’ve found is they’ve been teaching me.”

About YouthBuild Louisville

YouthBuild Louisville is a nonprofit organization that provides education, counseling and job skills to unemployed young American adults (ages 16–24), generally high school dropouts. The program has five components: construction, education, counseling, leadership and graduate opportunity. 800 S. Preston St., Louisville 502-290-6121

About IDEAS xLab

IDEAS xLab’s ultimate goal is to drive large-scale change by training artists to become a unique force of social entrepreneurs and creative disruptors of the status quo who transform the American workforce for a better, healthier, more sustainable future.

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