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Before The Plate is ‘therapeutic’ for culinary students

Video by Ashlee Rezin | Participants in the Before The Plate training program learn how to cut and chop potatoes, peppers and on

Ashlee White never thought she would enjoy cooking, but a three-week training program through a new partnership with the University of Chicago piqued her interest in joining the culinary field.

White, 23, is one of 14 Chicagoans participating in Before The Plate, a paid culinary arts training program that offers the opportunity the work for dining vendor Bon Appétit at the University of Chicago. The program represents the first-ever partnership with the university, Bon Appétit, Centers for New Horizons and Rome’s Joy Catering.

Before The Plate features lessons on everything from food preparation and sanitation, to cooking ratatouille and job readiness.

“I didn’t think I would love it this much, even when we’re just sitting in the classroom and we’re just talking, it’s like it’s therapeutic,” said White, who lives in Bronzeville with her two sons, ages 3 and 6. “When I’m in the kitchen I feel like I’m a part of something important, it makes you feel like you have something, like a meaning in life.”

The three-week course — for students ages 16 and older — runs from Aug. 13 – 31 on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. All earn $7.75 an hour during hands-on training directed by chef Cliff Rome or a representative from Rome’s Joy. A food handlers certification is earned by passing an online exam at the conclusion of the program. Then, pending the outcome of a background check, the students are eligible for a job at Bon Appétit paying $13 an hour.

Bon Appétit — which was awarded the UChicago Dining contract in 2016 — has a commitment to hire 50 percent of its employees from the South Side. It runs three all-you-can-eat dining commons and 11 retail locations on the U. of C. campus.

“We want to be a good neighbor,” said Richard Mason, executive director of UChicago Dining and assistant vice president for campus life and associate dean at the university. “The university wants to make sure that we’re supporting and encouraging the community directly surrounding our campus.”

White was introduced to Before The Plate by Centers for New Horizons, the nonprofit that is providing job readiness training and case management support, including child care and transportation, for 11 months.

“Getting a job at the University of Chicago would help me a lot. I could pay my bills and do extra stuff for my kids, it’ll just help my life,” she said.

Before the partnership with the university, Centers for New Horizons ran the Before The Plate program for more than two years, training about 125 people in the culinary arts.

“The food industry is an industry that I want to stay in,” said Honni Harris, 45, adding that she eventually wants to own her own catering company.

Harris, a mother of two sons, ages 19 and 24, who lives in Uptown, said she was unemployed for about two years, surviving through the “help of friends and family.” She’s not a novice in the industry. She previously worked at Corner Bakery, Au Bon Pain and a catering company in Naperville.

“These classes I would do for free. I am what you call a foodie, I get excited over cookbooks,” Harris said. “I’ve always wanted work at the University of Chicago, who doesn’t?”