From the Ground Up
Chef Andrea Bergquist spends her days teaching low-income residents the skills to work in a professional kitchen.
With her perfectly positioned chef cap and unblemished apron, Chef Andrea Bergquist, director of the Chef Training Program, walks around her improvised kitchen, checking on her student’s progress.
“Those chickpeas are for the falafel, not hummus,” Bergquist tells a confused student. A dozen disciples are facing their last days before graduation, but the teacher still pressures them as they prepare a classic Middle Eastern meal. One student quickly chops the onion with precision, while another skillfully rounds the chickpea mix between two spoons, forming small balls of what will be falafel. A different member of the group meticulously cleans the table, preventing food scraps from accumulating.
Down in the basement of the St. Paul and St. Andrew Church on the Upper West Side, students meet four days a week to cook. The free 14-week course teaches them basic kitchen skills to get a job as a cook. The class caters to some of the most vulnerable communities — immigrants, low-income New Yorkers and individuals with mental health issues, making for a vivid assortment of students.
They learn quite a bit in those 14 weeks — from knife skills and sanitation to menu planning to proper behavior in a professional kitchen. Bergquist says that this class is about more than culinary tricks and tips.
“That is really what the class is about in many ways. To help students by giving them the skills, but really getting their lives together.”
— Andrea Bergquist
Although Bergquist is unable to give the “full” professional kitchen experience, she still finds it more fulfilling than her previous positions in high level kitchens.
The students know they are learning from the best. After being a ballet dancer for over a decade, Bergquist enrolled in a culinary school at 28. From there, she went to work for some of the top restaurants in New York City, and helped launch Red Rooster, one of the high-end culinary pioneers in Harlem. Bergquist was also selected by the Obamas to cook a state dinner at the White House.
Raquel, a student who travels daily from Brooklyn, attributes all of her kitchen abilites to Bergquist.
“We learned how to do this here, I had no knife skills before I started. We learned all of this in, what, a month and a half?” About 50% of graduates end up making a career in the restaurant industry. Though some of them drop out of the class, most of the students make it to graduation, which Bergquist considers one of the best days of the program. She says this class gives opportunites that you don’t get in a typical culinary school.
Different cultures, introducing [them] to new food. Working one on one with people in order to come together, an expression of art through food. Sitting, enjoying, eating, conversing and just giving back. These students have a great opportunity to give back through food.
The Chef Training Program follows the foundational idea of the West Side Campaign Against Hunger, focusing on a holistic approach to nutrition problems. The organization also avoids simplistic solutions. Their program focuses on teaching skills as well as addressing personal problems through therapy and counseling.
“The hugest thing I’ve learn in these four years is that this class is about life, so much about life, and we have had so many successes. That is what keeps me going.”
— Andrea Bergquist
Not all of the students end up working in the restauraunt industry, but that’s not what the class is only about. At the end of 14 weeks, Bergquist has given them the skills to thrive in the fast-paced job market of New York City and some impressive knife techniques. But most of all, a growing confidence to overcome their obstacles.