kitchen prep worker

Immigrant asylum seekers are being prepped for a career in the culinary industry

A nonprofit is providing hands-on training, connecting immigrants to entry-level jobs and the U.S. workforce culture

A nonprofit that has been teaching culinary and life skills to underserved middle and high school students, as well as people with histories of incarceration, for 34 years has now expanded its services to immigrant asylum seekers.

Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP) operates in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Miami, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and throughout Arizona.

In New York, the organization launched a pilot program for asylum seekers at the beginning of the year with grant funding from the New York State Department of Labor. After successfully completing five weeks of training, the participants receive work permits and job placement.

Tanya Steel, executive director, C-CAP

“When the asylum seeker initiative began taking more and more attention and force throughout the nation, we realized we were very much in a great position to be one of the great solutions for this problem,” says Tanya Steel, executive director of C-CAP.

“The hospitality industry has a ton of jobs open for these wonderful people. We think it’s a win-win win all the way around getting them off government subsidies,” she adds.

The state funding supports five cohorts of 10 students each, ranging in age their 20s through their late 50s. Most are from Latin America and worked in different professions before they sought asylum in the U.S.

The students meet Monday through Friday, five hours a night, for five weeks in a local New York City high school.

“They are doing hands-on culinary training and learning the information to pass the Department of Health Food Handler certification exam, which must be taken and passed in order for us to place these students,” explains Steel.

The classes are taught in Spanish and English. “We’re doing it first in Spanish and then repeating it in English so that people start to get used to learning English. They’re all taking ESL on the side,” she adds. “Part of our curricula is explaining the workforce culture in the U.S. and what employers expect and how to be a good employee. We also provide a lot of mentorship.”

Marcus Samuelsson, chef and co-chair, C-CAP

“They’re helping fulfill the need in the industry where they’re looking for skilled employees to start and then helping these wonderful people who have come to achieve the American Dream,” says Steel.

Acclaimed chef Marcus Samuelsson, the longtime co-chair of C-CAP’s Board of Directors, says in a statement, “The hospitality industry desperately needs enthusiastic and skilled entry-level workers and C-CAP has long been a leader in culinary training.

“We are a great solution to provide willing and able workers as part of this program. And, as an immigrant myself, I know that with some determination, this can turn into a flourishing career.”

”Food connects people, whatever culture you are’

“I think one of the things that this program highlights is just the work that we do all the time for New Yorkers, whether they be New Yorkers that are changing careers or perhaps lost their positions and are looking for new work,” says Dana Politis, associate commissioner for workforce development, New York State Department of Labor.

Dana Politis, associate commissioner for workforce development, New York DOL

“When we started our specific asylum seeker work, the culinary workforce was really one of the first businesses to stand up and say, ‘We really want to get involved. We really want to be part of this work that we’re all doing to connect our New Yorkers to jobs.’”

Politis adds, “These individuals really want to work. They want to get jobs. The C-CAP program is great because you have employers, you have training partners, you have our government and community-based organizations.

Primarily with funding from the U.S. Department of Labor, Politis notes, “The training is the right amount of time to get people what they need, and that’s getting their lives together, getting work, and setting themselves up. We see ourselves as just a piece of that puzzle.”

She also emphasizes the importance of social capital, “Network is so key. They’re building social capital with themselves. To see them rooting each other on – you need that. All of us need that. I’m a first-generation American. English is not my first language.”

Politis sums it up, “Food connects people, whatever culture you are.”

‘A very, very exciting, dynamic, prosperous career in the food world’

Steel – who is originally from England, herself – adds, “Some of the [students’] stories are unbelievable. You just can’t believe what they faced, and your heart just goes out to every one of them. They all have incredible backstories about why they left their country, which almost all of them did not want to do.

“They all have endured a long path to get where they are. So that’s why being in these classes is so beautiful. They’re uniformly just joyous to be there and to be given this opportunity.”

(Photo: C-CAP)

Steel acknowledges other stakeholder support, “We are working with Workforce1, which is an office connected with New York City government that provides training, as well. They have done resume and interview skills workshops with all of our students.”

The result, according to Steel, “We have placed the first cohort in a variety of amazing jobs through incredible companies like Restaurant Associates. In fact, two of our students from another cohort are now working at Citibank and at Morgan Stanley for restaurant associates.

Marcus Samuelsson Group has taken someone. So, all of them are placed and they’re in essentially entry-level cook jobs when they go in.”

Steel says the immigrant asylum seekers can look to Samuelsson for inspiration.

“He’s an immigrant from Ethiopia and Sweden. He’s the most famous African American chef in the world. He’s achieved incredible amounts of success through food. So, you can really create a very, very exciting, dynamic, prosperous career in the food world.”