Silver Fork Program a cooking success for the LGBT community at the Center on Halsted

Wed. November 11, 2015 11:57 PM by Ross Forman

photo credit // ross forman
Chicago, IL - For two nights, Nov. 10 & 11, the third-floor lobby at the Center on Halsted in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood was transformed into an elegant dining room with orange table clothes that seemed to shine in a seasonal glow for close to 75 guests each night.

The catered cocktail party started at 6 p.m., and cocktails were plentiful, served by Trina Rodriguez. Meanwhile, hors d'oeuvres were presented by smiling chefs, each dressed in all black. There were bite-size pieces of smoked salmon on top of warm potato pancakes. There was tomato bisque soup, presented in mini mason jars accompanied by a slice of a grilled cheese sandwich. And finally, there were meatballs in spicy marinara sauce.

Everything was presented with perfection – from the first bite through the apple cobbler dessert, featuring vanilla Chantilly cream.

The meals were a celebration for the graduating class of the Center's Silver Fork Culinary Arts and Job Readiness Program – a nine-week vocational training program for LGBT and allied adults (ages 18+) who are unemployed or underemployed. Participants receive hands-on training in culinary arts and job readiness. Skills such as knife-handling and front-of-the-house etiquette are covered, and instruction is provided leading to State of Illinois/City of Chicago Food Safety and Sanitation (FSS) certification. Participants graduate with the skills and knowledge to be successfully placed in the hospitality and restaurant industry. Case management services are provided to participants to support participants through the training, job search, and employment process. 

Funded by the City of Chicago Department of Family and Support Services, Kraft Foods, and J.P. Morgan Chase, the Silver Fork Program was developed by the Center with the guidance of professional chefs who have years of experience in the hospitality sector and who are experts on the skills needed to succeed in a catering, restaurant, hotel, and other foodservice settings.

The graduation meals for this current crop of student/chefs was the culmination of a journey that officially started Sept. 14, and featured classes every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at the Center, for six hours each day. In total, the program is 170 hours to graduation.

The student/chefs truly mastered the Center's state-of-the-art Common Threads kitchen.

"I'm very appreciative for this awesome program, and I am very appreciative of this opportunity," said Chef Amy. (All of the student/chefs are known as 'Chef' and then their first name.) Another student/chef added, "This is a great experience – not just for me (personally), but for everyone. This is a great program."

The Center offers four Silver Fork cohorts each year, and each student receives assistance with job placement and remain a resource following graduation for continued development.

"The program has graduated hundreds of students who are imbedded all over Chicago, from catering companies to restaurant and grocery establishments, such as Eataly," said Center on Halsted CEO Modesto 'Tico' Valle. "This program, now in its fifth year, continues to remain relevant because LGBTQ individuals remain under and unemployed at higher rates compared to heterosexual counterparts and continue to face workplace discrimination. We're able to equip our students with integral skills to succeed and thrive in the workplace while also creating employer allies for our community."

The Silver Fork Program is run by Troy Williams, the Center's Culinary Arts Coordinator; and Chef Sean Bush, the Center's Culinary Arts Training Coordinator.

Bush has been with the program for about three years and he said that, "the classes just keep getting better and better."

For the Nov. 10-11 event, the student/chefs executed the entire meal – from prepping to cooking to plating, and literally everything in between.

The entrees included roasted beef tenderloin with demi-glace, roasted chicken breast with country gravy, and a roasted carrot risotto with Brussel sprouts (vegetarian).

"This program changed my life," said Chef David, who completed his run in the Silver Fork Program this past summer.

Chef Rachel said she is "ecstatic, overwhelmed and overjoyed" regarding her future, thanks to the program.

Williams said the current crew of chefs "has been a really wonderful class," though at only eight (of close to 40 that applied) was one of the smallest ever for the program – and seven are LGBT.

"I think (the Silver Fork Program) is successful because we create an environment where the students want to be here," Williams said.