CHARLOTTE – Like any great success story, the Community Culinary School of Charlotte had humble beginnings. The nonprofit was founded in a one-room section of unfinished warehouse space with two students and a single goal in mind: for graduates to have living wage jobs with career potential.
Nearly 23 years later and the school has grown into a space at 9315 Monroe Road with six offices, a conference room and a commercial kitchen where 50 to 60 students are trained each year. There have been 998 graduates since 1997, with the 1,000th student set to graduate this December.
Unlike other culinary schools in the area, CCSC is specifically for adults who face barriers to long-term successful employment.
Of the average applicants, 42% have been incarcerated; 22% live in shelters, transitional housing or on friends’ sofas; 41% are in recovery or substance abuse programs; 25% are single parents or responsible for children; and 10% are veterans.
Director of Development Anne Lambert said the goal is to break the cycle of poverty while increasing upward mobility of disadvantaged groups. So far, she said the school has been successful. Approximately 83% of students have a job by graduation and 89% are still working after six months.
The 14-week program teaches culinary arts, job-readiness skills and goal-setting to help students obtain and maintain career-level jobs. During their 320 hours of training, students are exposed to more than 200 recipes, assist in preparing more than 12,780 pastries and help cook and serve more than 2,450 meals in the café. They also annually prepare over 5,000 meals provided to the community, with some food going to Blessed Assurance Adult Day Care in Matthews.
CCSC also offers catering services and has a storefront café. Both prepare students for employment by offering front-of-the-house experience, customer service training and job opportunities to students and alumni while generating revenue for the school.
The café is open for takeout only or curbside pickup during the pandemic. The menu changes daily with soups, salads, sandwiches and specialty entrees. There are also bakery items and grab-and-go meals. CCSC is currently offering traditional meat lasagna or vegetable lasagna with red sauce for $48 (serves four). Both come with a garden salad, house-made bread rolls and fresh cookies.
Chef Ron Ahlert said students never put out anything less than delicious. He has been with the school since 2000, originally as a chef instructor before becoming executive director in 2006.
“What we’re doing is making food for friends,” Ahlert said. “The people who come to our café are our friends and I take that very seriously. They chose us out of all the places to eat in Charlotte.”
Outside of the kitchen, students meet with a counselor, or life coach, who helps them set goals and build social-emotional skills.
“We’re taking care of the whole person and that’s hard skills and soft skills,” said Bonnie O’Rourke, CCSC’s comptroller. “Not only learning in the kitchen, but how to get along with people and work together.”
Called RPS (Relapse Prevention Services or Ready, Plan, Succeed) counseling, O’Rourke said the idea is for students to talk about their personal lives and any barriers that could prevent them from graduating. In some situations, counselors can connect students to resources for child care, financial assistance, medical care and other needs.
“We try to find a solution that helps them stay in the program,” Lambert said.
More than halfway through the program and Sharon Watkins has already learned so much, from knife skills to measuring in pounds to the chemistry of baking. She even learned a new way to make macaroni and cheese that’s less expensive and feeds more people.
Before attending CCSC, Watkins worked in banking. Watkins said she always wanted to go to culinary school but thought she couldn’t afford it.
“For a long time, it was just a dream,” Watkins said.
Tuition is an estimated $7,400, but thanks to CCSC’s funding model, students never have to pay.
The school is supported by café and catering sales, donations and special events like Miracle on Monroe – an annual holiday fundraiser with chef-inspired gourmet food, beverages, a silent auction and festive activities.
CCSC also sells bakery items to Brakeman’s Coffee & Supply in downtown Matthews and Price’s Chicken Coop in Charlotte’s South End neighborhood.
More than half of the school’s money comes from public funding, government grants and foundation grants. The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services gives to CCSC as part of its Food and Nutrition Services Employment and Training program. Another grant comes from Mecklenburg County through its ‘Rise 2 Work’ program. A grant from the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission supports RPS counseling for students who are in recovery from drug or alcohol abuse.
Lambert said the state and county are in partnership with CCSC because they have a vested interest in people working and contributing to the economy. However, it’s equally important that individuals in the community want people to succeed and make a living wage, too.
“It’s so valuable to have that feeling of success,” Lambert said. “I think it’s worth making a charitable donation so someone else can experience that who hasn’t been able to.”
CCSC gives Watkins the skills and confidence to eventually open her own business, and she still has time to take care of her mother when she gets home from school. Watkins said she recommends the program to anyone who needs direction in life or is not sure what they want to do.
“This is the first place I would send them,” Watkins said. “This is not only cooking, but they teach you life skills and how to deal with the outside world.”
Want to go?
Community Culinary School of Charlotte is located at 9315 Monroe Road, Suite D, Charlotte. Due to the pandemic, the café is open for takeout only and offers curbside pickup from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Visit www.communityculinary.org for details and call 704-375-4500 to place your order