DOWNTOWN — The eight pre-teens in jeans and track jackets gathered last week, giddy and out of place in the slick, hushed lobby of the members-only Metropolitan Club on the 67th floor of the Willis Tower.
The kids came by van from East Garfield Park, where gun violence is common and grocery stores are not. A few had never been in a skyscraper before, let alone inside the club, a home away from office for top-level Chicago executives.
The kids giggled about the ear-popping elevator ride up, snapped selfies on their phones and admired the view from a conference room. When it came time to see the kitchen, they got serious.
For Nakia Seals, it was a glimpse into her future, which she is "100 percent sure" will involve cooking.
"When I'm in the kitchen, it takes all my problems away," the 13-year-old said.
Seals and her peers are part of a seven-week culinary program run by the club in partnership with Breakthrough, a nonprofit serving the homeless and young people in East Garfield Park that is in the midst of a $16 million expansion.
Janet Fuller says the kids get exposed to new concepts and ideas:
This initial tour of the club was to whet the proverbial appetite. Cooking classes led by executive chef Greg Carso and general manager Rick Kroner take place not at the club but at Breakthrough's West Side center. At the end of the seven weeks, the kids will return to Willis Tower to cook and serve a holiday meal to their families.
"It gives them a thought of what could be their future," Kroner said.
Now in its third year, the program is designed for middle schoolers as a supplement to cooking classes Breakthrough offers youths in its after-school program.
Kroner and Bill Curry, chief program officer at Breakthrough, attend the same church. Kroner said a casual conversation with Curry about how Metropolitan Club could support Breakthrough led to Curry calling up a year later asking him to design a class.
East Garfield Park is in a food desert. Forty-seven percent of its residents are on food stamps, according to Breakthrough executive director Arloa Sutter. Providing access to good, nutritious food and a model for healthy habits is built into the mission at Breakthrough, which runs separate shelters for men and women.
Its Fresh Market food pantry serves about 700 families a month. It operates more like a regular grocery store, in that families get to shop for the foods they want instead of being handed an allotment.
"We want them for be creative with food, rather than going to the corner and getting Flamin' Hots and Cokes. We want them to enjoy food and eat food that has good nutritional value. We want them to recognize the value of fruits and vegetables," Sutter said.
Breakthrough's expansion includes the construction of a "FamilyPlex" community center at 3219 W. Carroll Ave. and renovation of the women's center and Fresh Market at 3330 W. Carroll Ave., opening in early December.
The FamilyPlex, slated to open Jan. 17, will house a community cafe, health clinic, gym, fitness center and classrooms. There also will be a teaching kitchen into which the cooking classes will expand. Sutter plans to add a job training curriculum that includes food sanitation certification classes.
"It's a good opportunity for kids to think about careers and being a chef as one of those careers," Sutter said.
The youths chosen for the Metropolitan Club culinary program are A and B students who "are committed to being in it," said Gynger Garcia, associate director of youth development. "It does mean you have to come here right after school, and it does mean you won't get to do your homework until you get home at 7 p.m."
Joshua Gwin, 13, is the only returning student from last year. Though he said he is not sure he wants to become a chef, "it's made me want to cook more. I want to learn more," he said.
The program covers knife and life skills. Carso teaches students the basics of kitchen hygiene and sanitation. Kroner talks to them about front-of-house management, about customer service and setting the table and job opportunities beyond the stove. He sometimes brings in board members from the club to talk on their area of expertise.
Next week, the students will visit Garfield Produce, a new indoor hydroponics farm right in the neighborhood. The farm's most recent hire had been a homeless regular at the Breakthrough shelter.
On last week's tour, Carso walked the kids through the kitchen, explaining the layout. Standing in an area where racks of dirty dishes stood waiting to be washed, he said, "It's not a fun job, but it's a necessary evil. It's actually one of the most important jobs here."
He introduced the kids to one of his cooks, Dale Wilson. Wilson is 22, African-American and mom to a 4-year-old. She grew up on the Southwest Side and is attending Washburne Culinary Institute, Carso's alma mater.
Wilson told them about her job on the cold foods station called garde manger, and how an 80-hour work week is not uncommon.
"If y'all want to work in the restaurant business, y'all be prepared to be on your feet for hours," she told the group.
These kids might go to culinary school like Wilson; Carso is on the advisory board there. They might end up chefs, line cooks, sommeliers. Or they might not.
"I think we're all realistic that this is a teaser," Carso said. "But I also think in layers. ... If we can get them forming good habits, if we can try and get that carrot in front of their face to set some goals, if they can be courageous, confident and have common sense, they can navigate through anything."
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