Huddled around a screen, three students watch as Jermaine Peterson pulls up windows on his cubicle’s desktop computer. Usually, the Culinary Training Program’s Life Skills class takes place in a larger classroom on the second floor of Moveable Feast—a nonprofit known for providing free meals to sick people in need of support—but today there were technical difficulties.
Today's class is on job search skills. Peterson slowly walks the students through how to attach a cover letter and résumé to an email, from pointing out the "attach" button to checking that it has popped up on screen.
"Before I send any email, I read it three times. You don't have to read it three times, but before I send an email, I read it three times," Peterson says, as his students chuckle along. "This is your first impression to an employer. This is the first thing they see when they look at you."
He pauses for questions, before continuing, "Everybody know how to do a spell check?"
Peterson manages Moveable Feast's Culinary Training Program, a 12-week in-house culinary and job-skills program that assists unemployed Baltimoreans in reentering the job market. Last year, the program accepted 43 students, 31 of whom completed the program and 27 of whom gained employment soon afterward.
In his life skills class, Peterson teaches everything he thinks will make his students more successful in the work force, from punctuality to conflict resolution to interview skills. Some would say these lessons are common knowledge, but Peterson disagrees.
"A lot of people say, well, that seems pretty obvious," Peterson says. "But what I've learned is what's obvious for you isn't obvious for everyone."
His work as the culinary program manager has brought Peterson's professional life full circle. He's spent the last 15 years working in the hospitality industry, and at Moveable Feast, he gets to teach his students the skills he learned firsthand throughout his career.
As a teen, Peterson saw himself going down an entirely different path. A talented math student, he graduated from Baltimore City College high school and enrolled in Frostburg State University as an accounting major. "Everybody said, 'you should be an accountant!'," he says. "I quickly found out that the bookkeeping aspect wasn't really my forte. I didn't enjoy the desk work, and it was very tedious."
He switched his major to business management, but left the university his junior year, when he had a son.
Soon after leaving school he gained his first job at the Embassy Suites Baltimore Hotel at BWI Airport, where he received, organized, and stocked the food, before being promoted to the hotel's purchasing agent.
Peterson found he enjoyed working in the hospitality industry. Unlike the desk work associated with accounting, hospitality was direct and personable. "When you're working in hospitality, you get to see the fruits of your labor," he says. "You get to see the finished product. Construction workers start a building, but they don't get to see everybody walk into the building."
Looking to advance into a management position, he left Embassy Suites for a job as a dishroom supervisor at Harbor Court hotel. From there, he was promoted to food and beverage supervisor and, finally, room service manager. Since then, he has worked at a catering company, a country club, and a retirement community, before beginning at Moveable Feast.
One of Peterson's favorite positions was the clubhouse manager at L'Hirondelle country club. He felt welcomed into the small club's community, which allowed his kids to use its facilities, including tennis courts, a duckpin bowling alley, and an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
Peterson says leaving L'Hirondelle is the biggest regret of his career, in part because his next position, as the Director of Hospitality at the Atrium Village retirement community, was so short-lived. "I was anxious to move on," he admits. "I went to the retirement community, kind of put all my policies and procedures in place, and once they were up and running they told me they couldn't pay me anymore."
Peterson has lived and worked within the Maryland borders his whole life, but traveling is one of his hobbies. He recalls the week before being hired at Moveable Feast, when he and his family were on a cruise from Baltimore to the Bahamas.
"We were out in the middle of the ocean, and the boat caught on fire," he says. "We were on the deck the whole time. We stood there probably for about four hours before they extinguished the fire."
Moveable Feast is Peterson's first 9-to-5 job, something he especially appreciates because it allows him to spend more time with his wife and kids. Family and food play integral roles in his life. He caters for a Baptist church, where his father is a pastor, and his 16-year-old son is interested in going to culinary school.
"I'm trying to talk him out of it," he says. "I've worked in the industry for a long time . . . I know the quality of life that comes with being a cook or chef. It doesn't promote family environment. But, if that's what he wants to do, of course I'm going to be supportive."
With his background, Peterson knows that finding a good job is important. It's something he continuously stresses in his life skills classes, even as the Culinary Training Program class wraps up for the day.
"Like I said, after graduation I'll make appointments, we'll come in and we'll do this for about an hour, two hours, however much time we have that day," Peterson reminds the students, as they gather their things. "And we will continue to do that until we get employed."