Earlier this year, Excel Wharton was walking through a parking lot on his way to a bus stop when he noticed a sign hanging outside a former church.
The sign was for Catholic Charities’ culinary arts program, and Wharton — then jobless — was in need of some new skills.
Wharton had spent nine years working in the University of Louisville’s dining facilities. But after the school switched dining partners, Wharton was laid off, and he’d never received any certification that could help him get work somewhere else.
This culinary program, Wharton thought, could be his way back in.
Since June 2015, dozens of students have entered and graduated from the Common Table culinary arts program, which provides professional training for refugees and other Louisvillians who face barriers to entering the food service industry.
Students in the program may come from other countries where they’ve worked with food, but they don’t know how to properly sanitize dishes. The students may have criminal histories that prevent them from getting an interview, and they can use Common Table’s connections to get a foot in the door.
The students create a diverse group with different backgrounds and ideas. But the goal for each is to leave the program with the certification — and confidence — needed to thrive.
“When you can come into a kitchen, hold a knife and cook food that you’re familiar cooking, it gives you the opportunity to feel empowered instead of unsure,” said program director Laura Stevens. “… Whether you’re a refugee making Ethiopian stew or someone from west Louisville sharing grandmother’s recipe for mac and cheese, (food) taps into all of our culture and background.”
Much of her first year was spent planning the Common Table program, in which students spend eight weeks learning proper kitchen skills under chef Hank Levitt.
The course costs $500 per student, but Stevens said the people the program targets can rarely pay. So students instead often work for their tuition by helping out with lunch and catering services.
Common Table students currently serve lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Tuesday and Thursday at 2234 W. Market St., where several Catholic Charities programs are based.
The lunch menu is constantly changing based on which students are leading the class, and a diner can try everything from curried chicken wings to Cuban meatball subs in a matter of a few visits.
Article credit: Bailey Loosemore, Courier-Journal