Cooking up a new future

By Sophia Coleman

The inspiration began with a red Radio Flyer wagon filled with sandwiches and coffee.

Lisa Nigro, a former Chicago police officer, founded Inspiration Cafe in 1989 when she used her nephew’s wagon to feed the homeless and other passersby with her homemade food. Her little cafe on wheels slowly grew into a full-fledged restaurant for the homeless, and in 2000 began offering a training program for chefs in its kitchen.

“We had these obvious assets,” said Margaret Haywood, director of training and social enterprise at the parent company, Inspiration Corporation. “There was a commercial-grade kitchen and [we had] connections with chefs, so we decided to use the restaurant as a culinary training center for people who are homeless.”

In 2005, Inspiration Corporation opened Inspiration Kitchens, a restaurant and culinary training center at 4715 N. Sheridan Road. A second location with more space for catering and private parties opened in 2011 at 3504 W. Lake St. in Garfield Park.

After an application process involving interviews and standard math and English placement tests, eager chefs-in-training are put through a 13-week program that teaches them cooking basics,  from sauteing and frying to baking and using dry heat.

The first Inspiration Kitchens in Uptown is one of the only job-training programs in Chicago to recieve funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Because of this, inquiring students must be at least 18 years old and federally recognized as homeless.

According to Kristen Waltz, case manager for Inspiration Kitchens-Uptown, the Garfield Park location is privately funded so potential participants do not have to worry about being rejected from the program if they fall short of the federal guidelines for homelessness.

Inspiration Corporation also provides participants with bus fare and uniforms. If needed, housing is available until students are able to support themselves. The corporation also helps with job placement but encourage students to develop their own interviewing skills.

“Basically, someone could show up without any tangible resources and get through the program,” Waltz said. “The mission is to provide basic entry-level skills in the culinary field for people who are experiencing multiple barriers to employment.”

Two graduates of the program landed positions at Mastro’s, 520 N. Dearborn St., a high-end steakhouse and seafood restaurant. Joe Taylor, general manager at Mastro’s, said the two graduates started out as dishwashers but have since moved up to become prep cooks.

“These are young men [and women] that are looking to make a change in their life,” Taylor said. “They get involved in places like Inspiration Kitchens and use it as a stepping stone to further themselves.”

LaMesha, who asked that her last name not be published, started at Inspiration Kitchens last November and will be graduating in a few weeks. She previously worked as a preschool teacher and during the recession became a stay-at-home mom. After realizing her daughter would be starting school, she knew she had to start a career again. She always had a flair for cooking and wanted to take her skills to the next level.

“It’s been great. It’s really fast paced,” LaMesha said of the program. “But I work well under pressure. I was learning the basics, like rice pilaf, to more difficult dishes like eggs Benedict and cooking a correct beef tenderloin.”

Waltz said in extreme cases, such as participants with a history of incarceration or substance abuse, the greatest reward comes from seeing them turn their lives around through conscious decisions to change their lives.

She recalled how one student who previously lived on the streets with his son, who ended up being his driving force to finish the program.

“He said, ‘I’m going to do this so that my son doesn’t have to live the way I did,’” Waltz said. “He made a choice that just collecting disability wasn’t enough. That’s real success to me.”