Paul had been out of work four months and he was hungry. With empty pockets and a burning belly, he made his way to the San Antonio Food Bank, telling himself it would just tide him over until he found something.
While he was waiting to do his paperwork, a stack of flyers sitting on the counter caught his eye. He picked one up: it described a job training program run by the food bank. Paul wasn’t out of work for lack of motivation– he wanted to work, but couldn’t find a job. Except for a couple of years when he worked with a flooring company, most of his life he’d worked at restaurants. It was what he knew, and where he liked to be. Lately, though, the economy had made those jobs harder to get and keep. He was low man in the kitchen without any real skills.
The more he read about the Community Kitchen program at the Food Bank, the better it sounded: sixteen weeks of culinary classes and on the job training! For the first time in months, Paul felt a surge of hope. He could get real skills taught by real chefs.
What Paul did not get that day was the food stamps he’d come for–but he hasn’t been hungry one single day. He has spent the last four months charged up, learning and practicing in class rooms, kitchens and at a company called Catalyst Catering.
The name is no accident. Catalyst Catering is part of a confluence of programs geared to helping the one out of four children and one out of five adults in Southwest Texas that have to worry about where their next meal will come from. One out of four children. I think about that after dinner when I scrape our plates clean and try to decide whether I should keep or throw leftovers. This isn’t “eat-your-dinner-because-the-kids-in-Ethiopia-are-starving”. It is the very real fact that I take for granted that I will always have as much wholesome food as I need and want, and I can’t imagine life any other way.
Like all food banks, the San Antonio Food Bank is for people who can’t take their next meal for granted. But this program is different– it actually combines a number of initiatives in a smart, simple, and effective way. The way the programs integrate with one another makes such perfect, logical sense, I wonder why every area of the country doesn’t have a similar structure.
It begins with The Community Kitchen, where Paul got his start. Participants are given classroom and kitchen instruction similar to that at accredited culinary programs. In fact, the Executive Chef of Catalyst Catering, Joseph Dominguez, graduated from San Antonio’s Culinary Institute of America (CIA), as did the food bank’s Culinary Training Manager, Emily Carlos, who is in the process of creating a formal curriculum for the program.
Part of the Community Kitchen curriculum is probably not taught at the CIA. Participants get 6 hours training on diabetes prevention and nutrition. This part of the program hit home for Paul, who said, “A lot of people in my family have diabetes, and I feel like now I know how I can help them eat the right food. ”
I assumed Paul’s favorite part of the program would be the on-the-job training at Catalyst Catering, but he said, “It was all good. I loved making the kids their after school meals, because I knew it was the only hot meal most of them were probably going to have that day. I liked seeing them get good, healthy food. If they can eat right and be strong, maybe their lives will be better.”
I know Paul meant that kids need good nutrition for their bodies to develop well, but I wondered if it was more… After all, a ‘hot meal” fills more than just the belly. When my husband comes in after shoveling us out from yet another snow storm and I hand him a cup of hot cocoa, it does more than just to quench his thirst. When I have the flu and he makes me roasted chicken soup, or when my son has had “the worst day ever” and I make his favorite dinner– whenever one person prepares food for another, they are nurturing and nourishing.
There is a beautiful symbiosis to seeing a man who was hungry just months ago take such great pleasure in cooking for others. Paul cooks for kids in need through the Food Bank’s Kids Café program, which is another beautifully integrated part of the program. While Paul and other participants are learning the skills that will help prevent them from re-entering the legions of the hungry, and nutrition basics to help promote health in the community, they also prepare hot, healthy meals for hungry and often malnourished kids in a safe environment.
And now to Catalyst Catering. This is a business, and it is run with the goal of making money. The night I met Paul, Catalyst Catering had a table at a Mexican-themed walk-around food and wine event in San Antonio that was part of the city’s “Culinaria Weekend”. The Catering Company was there to get the word out about their services. They buy all their own food (in other words they don’t use donated food), and they use a combination of employees and “students” like Paul to do the cooking. What I am about to tell you is true: there were many, many tables from restaurants there that night, but Catalyst Catering was serving our absolute favorite dish of all, a chicken taco.
When I approached the table, Paul handed me a taco and I asked what was in it. He explained with such enthusiasm and passion that I was drawn in—and even more so when I saw the Food Bank emblem on his jacket. I asked him about the Food Bank’s role in the event, and soon found myself asking about his role, and his life… and thus this story began.
But it doesn’t end here. I met Paul on his last week in the program. He was waiting to hear if his application to attend the Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio on scholarship had been accepted. Who knows, maybe someday you’ll be watching Top Chef and you will see the happiest guy in the world competing.
This is an update to a story I posted last month. It was about a Paul, a young man who went to the San Antonio Food Bank with hunger pains, empty pockets and dismal job prospects– and ended up with career training in a field which he is passionate about (and which all but guarantees he’ll never be hungry again).
After I posted, I wrote a note to Paul with a link to the blog and he wrote back with an update. The 30-week culinary training program he had hoped to attend (as a precursor to the full Associates degree program) at the San Antonio Culinary Institute of America (CIA) is no longer offered. He is working full-time for Catalyst Catering, the catering business that is both an arm of and financial support for the food bank. He wrote, ” Only the Associates program is available at the San Antonio Campus and would cost $80,000 to complete. Hopefully, one day I can attend the school of my dreams. For now, I truly believe that I am where I belong. I get to do God’s work, and do what I love; which is raising money for those in need with my cooking abilities. I am truly blessed…”
I am grateful and humbled, Paul, by your generosity and by your story. I hope it will inspire other food banks to offer job training that breaks the cycle of “expendable” employment while providing funds and staff to feed the hungry. And I hope the way the San Antonio food bank changed your life forever will inspire readers to support their local food banks with whatever time and money they can.
Emily Carlos provided me with this recipe from Catalyst Catering for the robustly flavorful, deceptively simple taco served at the San Antonio Culinaria weekend event:
Catalyst Catering’s Taco de Pollo
Marinate boneless, skinless chicken breasts overnight in cilantro, garlic and evoo. Remove from marinade and season with salt & pepper. Braise in chicken stock until cooked through. Once cool enough to handle, shred. Place in a tortilla de nopal and top with Mexican crema ranchera (Mexican-style table cream, but sour cream or creme fraiche may be used in its place), salsa roja (tomato salsa) and Mexican “Chimichurri” (pureed cilantro, parsley, garlic, red wine vinegar and evoo.) ¡Buen Provecho!