Life's Kitchen

Idaho / Sept. 4, 2012 / by The Team

In Boise, Idaho, young adults who have dropped out of high school have the chance to get their lives back on track in an unusual way: by learning how to work in a commercial kitchen. 

Life’s Kitchen was the brain child of Rory Farrow, a restauranteur in Boise. “She was finding that her entry level employees weren't performing to the level of her expectations so Rory took the time to go back into the kitchen, roll up her sleeves and teach these young people how to be good employees under her guide,” explains the Executive Director of Life’s Kitchen, Kurt Alderman. 

As she got to know these young employees, she also saw that they were often struggling to live on their own, unsure of how to spend their money wisely and pay their taxes. 

“So, she started to spend that time teaching them how to live outside of her kitchen and she decided that maybe there's a way that we can help a group of young people in the Valley to live on their own.”

The idea grew from that first spark in the mid-nineties to become Life’s Kitchen, which was founded in 2003 and now helps around 55 to 60 young adults a year in the Boise area, at no or little charge to the students. 

Alderman explains that they’re “working with 16 to 20 year olds who have found themselves out of school and are unable to live on their own. And we're teaching these kids how to get jobs in the food-service industry but we're really teaching kids how to live on their own.” 

For some, the idea of kitchen skills might not go hand-in-hand with life skills, however, Life’s Kitchen hits the balance perfectly. The kitchen side provides the students with an intensive initiation into the world of the food-service industry and teaches them everything they need to know to be able to continue in a job. 

The students then also receive advice and classes on food safety, finances, and even spend time with a tutor who helps them prepare for their GED. The emphasis is as much on education as it is on cooking, and Life’s Kitchen provides the help and support needed for each student to finish high school if they need to, and then work towards college. 

The education provided is rigorous in both life skills and in culinary skills. Alderman says that, “By the time they get into the kitchen to work for one of our particular businesses, they are an asset to the production chef, they've also demonstrated that they can also handle a checkbook, that they have an understanding of what taxes are, how to understand and work a local transportation route. So they're demonstrating all of these life skills and things that really go hand in hand with the training provided in the kitchen.”

The effect on the students is clear from the transformation they make throughout the program. The first day of class is full of insecure and very quiet students. Their lack of experience in a kitchen and lack of faith in themselves means that “it was about week 6 or 7 before that exterior would start to fall away and we could really find out who they are,” says Alderman. 

“The first day of classes, kids are generally very insecure, they don't say much to each other, nor do they say much to the staff. It's information overload.”

Maggie Kiefer, the Kitchen Trainer, emphasizes that “I’ve seen some people come in, really lost, really angry, don’t want to talk to anybody, really closed off, to just happy and goofing around and just joking with people when they leave.”

“It's hard for them to leave because they've come to trust us,” continues Alderman. “When they first get here, there is a definite sense of 'this is another group of people that's going to let us down.' We have to earn their trust over a 16-17 week period.” 

The program itself is tailored to each student so the duration can range anywhere from sixteen or seventeen weeks to thirty. Alderman says that the goal is not “churning out students and graduates … what we're really here to do is give kids the foundation that they can be successful. Some students finish up after 15, 16 weeks, others take a little bit longer. The length of stay really is determined on how successful a student can be.”

Far from being just a theoretical education in culinary skills, Life’s Kitchen has a café for which all the students cook. This allows them to get a true sense of what it’s like to work in a productive kitchen, as well as interacting with the public. 

It’s also a great way to spread the news about the program, says Alderman. “I don't think the program might mean as much to the public if they couldn't come into the cafe, see it, touch it, smell it, taste it and take a tour and see what it is they're working on.”

For some, they realize that the food industry is not for them and Life’s Kitchen gives them the chance to continue on the course taking advantage of only the life skills and educational opportunities. 

It is that flexibility that best allows them to help as many students as possible, because with each different student, there are different things to be learned and goals to be achieved. With every student, however, there is one driving force, says Alderman. 

“It isn't just about teaching kids how to live on their own, it isn't just about teaching kids to be able to work in a kitchen, it's really giving kids that sense of hope and opportunity because that's something that they haven't had the majority of their lives, there just hasn't been that network of people they've been able to latch onto.”

To learn more about Life's Kitchen and to see the café opening hours, please visit their website, Facebook page, or Twitter feed.