Fresh Starts Culinary Academy: Everyone is Welcome at this Table
Founded in 1974 by members of the interfaith community after a flood forced many of Marin’s previously invisible homeless population from makeshift camps along the banks of local creeks and streams into more public places, Homeward Bound of Marin seeks to “end homelessness with training, housing and support.” Its 14 current programs are the living embodiment of the proverb “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime.”
Homeward Bound still provides much-needed housing for the county’s homeless, including overnight shelters, transitional housing and more permanent subsidized-rent housing, serving over 450 people each night. But since 2000 its main focus has been an ambitious, and highly successful, culinary training program and related social enterprises that are leading formerly homeless citizens into lives of self-sufficiency and personal pride.
Fresh Starts Culinary Academy, a partnership between Homeward Bound and the Marin County Office of Education’s Regional Occupation Program, offers food service training to up to 40 students each four-month term, year-round, in a new state-of-the-art training kitchen in Novato.
According to Paul Fordham, Homeward Bound’s deputy director since 2010 (he has been with the organization for over eight years), the decision to offer job training in the culinary field was very deliberate: Food service jobs are not only transferable for their students, these jobs are also not “outsource-able” overseas, thus providing great job security for graduates. In fact, 60% of their students are successfully placed after completing at least two terms of training. Most of the placements are for entry-level kitchen jobs, but some students have gone on to start their own food businesses.
The training, valued at around $10,000 for a two-semester term, is offered for free to clients of Homeward Bound. Classes are also open to the public and it is not surprising to learn that there is a waiting list to get in. Students are even paid when they stay after class (typically held Monday– Thursday from 8:30am to 12:30pm) to work in one of the various social enterprise programs developed by the culinary academy as a way to fund itself—and provide the students with real-world experience.
These programs include Fresh Starts Catering, offered at the school’s gorgeous new 3,000-square-foot event space, tricked out with state-of-the-art audio/visual capabilities; the production of M their signature Halo Truffles; and the operation of Jackson Café, a collaboration with San Rafael’s Whistlestop services. Since 2009, Fresh Starts has also offered monthly cooking classes to the public, featuring local celebrity chefs including Sondra Bernstein from Sonoma’s Girl & the Fig, Christian Caiazzo from Osteria Stellina in Point Reyes Station, Duskie Estes and John Stewart from Healdsburg’s Bovolo and Zazu, Heidi Krahling of San Anselmo’s Insalata’s and Marinitas and Joanne Weir from Sausalito’s Copita, as well as butchering classes from San Francisco’s “Dave the Butcher” and wine classes from master sommelier Rajat Parr. A quote from Chef Caiazzo in the academy’s materials states: “It is not often that I do events like the one last night and come away with such a good feeling. You guys really have it together and I am proud to be a small part in what you are trying to accomplish.”
In fact, many of these busy chefs return time after time because they know what a difference the funds generated by these classes is making in the lives of the students. But it is not only that: While the professional chef is conducting his or her demonstration, Fresh Starts students are working away behind the scenes in the kitchen to prepare a meal based on the chef’s recipes. At the conclusion of the demonstration, the chef, the attendees and the students, many of them homeless, are invited to sit down to break bread together.
As so beautifully put by the late, great food writer M. F. K. Fisher, herself a Sonoma resident for many years: “There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.” Amen to that.