Let’s Break This Bread: Training the Next Generation of SF Culinary and Hospitality Leaders

For over a decade, the students of Ida B. Wells Continuation High School gather the week before Thanksgiving Break to share a meal prepared and served by their classmates at a special school-wide Harvest Feast {1}. The cooks behind Harvest Feast are participants of Heat of the Kitchen, a program of the Buchanan YMCA that teaches Ida B. Wells students culinary arts and industry specific skills in a back of the house restaurant simulation. Participants also learn about the hospitality industry and pick up valuable job readiness and communications skills.

Heat of the Kitchen’s program in action

Led by veteran chef Alice Cravens with chefs Debbie Guardado and Mariah Hasson, the skills, values, and mentorship provided by Heat of the Kitchen creates pathways to future careers. Michael, Ida B. Class of 2013, recalls how “Chef” connected him to the industry, starting with his first job as a butcher at Haight Street Market.

“If you stay in the industry, this class will set you up to succeed whether it’s in the kitchen, front or back,” said Michael, who is now a line cook at Seven Hills in Nob Hill and is going strong in the hospitality sector five years out of high school. He has continued to be a part of the program, mentoring current students as a peer assistant. “If you want it for yourself, you are going to go further than you expect.”

According to an analysis published earlier this year by Deloitte, travel and tourism is one of the world’s fastest-growing sectors, with bookings close to $1.6 trillion in 2017. The restaurant industry, which is included in this sector, is experiencing significant growth. Americans now spend 44 percent of their food budgets eating out instead of cooking in, and there are now more than 620,000 eating and drinking establishments across the United States, with restaurants currently growing at about twice the rate of the population.

“Cultivating the next generation of hospitality professionals is an excellent example of how youth workforce development programming helps young people contribute to their own development as well as the viability of San Francisco — a city famous for its robust hospitality industry,” said DCYF Director Maria Su. “Providing funding for programming that trains the next generation of culinary and hospitality professionals while they are still in high school helps prepare San Francisco youth to be part of this lucrative sector very early in their careers.”

The support students receive from Heat of the Kitchen goes beyond career development. For senior Naila, the program provided a sense of belonging she hadn’t felt in a long time.

“I was hesitant at first because I didn’t know how to cook, I had no experience with cooking whatsoever. And when I got into it, I was like, ‘This is really fun.’ I feel at peace, I don’t feel stressed out.” Naila remembers, “Even at times in my life where I was really upset or depressed, Heat of the Kitchen gave me that sense that I belong somewhere, I am needed somewhere. And when I even put in my small input that’s still something to them.”

Chef Cravens sees this effect on young people in her program all the time.

“There is a sense of ownership that happens when you serve the food you’ve made that you know is good, and we find ourselves, even our shyest selves, moving from not just ‘owning’ the food we make to then wanting to share it with others,” she said. “We hear students new to working an event say ‘I didn’t know it felt this good to serve people food,’ and ‘I loved it when they appreciated us.’ Only hospitality can create that experience, this giving value to one another.”

In addition to Heat of the Kitchen, DCYF provides funding for a number of other pathways into the hospitality industry for San Francisco youth. At John O’Connell Technical High School, DCYF partners with Jewish Vocational Service to provide work-based learning in the hospitality sector and career exposure experiences in the school day. Outside of the high school setting, Old Skool Café in Mendell Plaza and the Primed and Prepped program at the Bayview YMCA provide culinary and hospitality programming for at-risk and formerly justice-involved youth.

Jewish Vocational Service at John O’Connell High School
Old Skool Cafe Youth
The late Mayor Ed Lee with youth participants of Bayview YMCA’s Primed and Prepped program.

This Thanksgiving, as families around the city cook and eat together, DCYF gives thanks for those cooking the meals for the rest of the year — and the programs ensuring that the hospitality industry is a source of self-sufficiency and fulfillment for San Francisco’s youth.

{1} This year was an exception, as heavy smoke from the Camp Fire in Butte County forced the San Francisco Unified School District to close on the day of the event.