Bay Area woman connects celebrity chefs and underserved youth for restaurant jobs

ByPamela Parker KGO logo
Saturday, March 9, 2024
Celebrity chefs help underserved youth enter restaurant industry
Sprouts Chef Training, led by Kate Rogers, is connecting celebrity chefs with underserved youth to help them enter the restaurant industry.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- One Bay Area woman is making a difference by helping underserved youths launch their careers in the culinary scene by pairing them with big-name chefs and restauranteurs such as Alice Waters, Dominic Crenn and Jamie Oliver.

In 2006, Kate Rogers started Sprouts Chef Training, a program launched in the Bay Area with the mission to empower youth to lead healthier lives by teaching them how to cook alongside real chefs at local restaurants.

"I started Sprouts with kid cooking classes and with Alice Waters' help, she introduced me to Jamie Oliver who introduced me to the world of chef training," she said.

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Rogers was running both programs for a while and the programs became so successful that she had to make a tough decision.

"I couldn't do both, so I had to really dig in deep and think about what motivates me and inspires me the most," said Rogers.

A key motivator that fueled her ultimate choice was remembering how an entry-level job selling telephones helped her own sibling find his footing in life.

"It made me realize how important it is that we're there for these young adults that are at this entryway into adulthood and need someone to give them an opportunity, to throw them a rope, just so they can stabilize," said Rogers.

The majority of trainees are young people of color, experiencing hardships such as poverty, crime, abuse, homelessness and foster care transitions.

Sisma Menedez, a former intern with Greens Restaurant when she was 17 years old in 2022, says cooking was a form of escape.

Growing up, she experienced violence and abuse, which affected her focus in school and her connections with others.

"I didn't always know I wanted to be a chef, until a few years ago when all the problems in my home started but I really love to cook and it made me feel really good. It just brought a lot of peace to myself," Menendez said.

Chef trainees are matched with mentor chefs. They earn on average, $18.70 per hour for the hours worked during a typical 12-week internship.

"Even if they don't get jobs in the restaurant business, they can get jobs teaching young people to cook. It's about their own health and feeling empowered in that way," Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse and an early supporter of the program said.

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The mentorship experience begins with trial shifts and orientation, with internships sometimes extending up to six months. Weekly check-ins are required by Sprouts staff, ending with an option for restaurants to renew mentorship and hire trainees.

This presents a win-win situation in a restaurant industry struggling to staff kitchens post-pandemic.

Former San Francisco Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer who joined Sprouts Chef Training as a board member says, "It's very problematic. It's very difficult to get help now. During the pandemic, a lot of the staff moved away, went to places where it was cheaper to live, decided to get out of the business. It gave them a second life but it was tough for the proprietors of restaurants and I think we are still suffering through that."

Richard Lee, the Executive Chef at two-Michelin star Saison in San Francisco said building exposure and confidence is the goal of this program, especially in the intimidating environment of professional kitchens.

"We can't teach them everything we know in that time but to give them the knowledge that they can walk into kitchens and not be scared, and just put their heads down and be able to focus and attack things with confidence, I think that is the key to it all."

To date, the program has placed 160 trainees with 74% of graduates using their internship skills in their jobs and 81% achieving food security.

The non-profit is holding its annual fundraiser on Sunday, March 24th at Asian Michelin-starred restaurant in San Francisco, Yank Sing.