Jerome Gause always liked cooking, but for the 20-year-old from Towson it had always been just a hobby.
But one month into unemployment, when he could no longer "sit around all day and do nothing," he realized he could turn that hobby into a career path. So in February he searched online for culinary arts schools, and one of the first results was the Maryland Food Bank's FoodWorks program, a culinary training seminar.
"I was looking for something to give me some sort of direction," Gause said. "… Once I clicked on that first link, it was all said and done. I registered immediately, I wanted to join as soon as possible and I'm happy that I did."
Last week Gause joined 15 other FoodWorks graduates who spanned all ages and were marking their completion of the 12-week program that worked with low-income people on their kitchen skills while they made about 37,000 meals for Maryland residents dealing with food insecurity.
The Friday celebration packed almost 100 family members and friends into a room at the Maryland Food Bank in Halethorpe to cheer on the program's 24th graduating class. The food bank, an anti-hunger organization, reports that there are about 680,000 Marylanders who suffer from food insecurity, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as limited or uncertain access to the adequate amount of food.
The FoodWorks program started six years ago and is currently led by Executive Chef Emmanuel "Manny" Robinson, who oversees recruiting and training. Through a partnership with the Community College of Baltimore County, participants pay a registration fee to earn course credit through what is essentially an unpaid internship, though they do get a travel stipend and a uniform.
They learn culinary techniques, plating and catering for 7-and-a-half-hours each day of the workweek and then have homework each night. About 14 of the 16 graduates have jobs lined up, mostly in the food service or hospitality industry.
"A lot of these folks really come out of situations where they don't really have … any career aspirations," Maryland Food Bank President and CEO Carmen Del Guercio said. "So here's a chance to give them a core set of skills, get employed into that workforce and allow them to kind of continue to advance their career."
Del Guercio added that commitment and passion are necessary to succeed in the program.
"We have people who don't make it, too, because they find when they get in here that they're just not ready for that step," he said.
For Brittne Bryan, 27, of Arbutus, the program was a way to get off the wrong path. She was pursuing a career in teaching, but realized she didn't have a passion for it.
Now Bryan, who used to go to food pantries herself, has a job lined up with Sobo Cafe in Baltimore, and credited the program for helping her and the other graduates "get another chance in finding a place in life."
"I'm going to start there and see where it leads me," she said.
Richard Davis, meanwhile, had eight years of kitchen experience before he found the program, but said it taught him skills he didn't get while working at a dining hall at the University of Maryland, College Park.
He learned about knife skills, cooling temperatures and serving safety, which he said was the most valuable part.
"I loved it," he said. "They taught me a lot."
Now, the 34-year-old wants to go to school, either at Johnson and Wales University — known for its culinary arts program — in Rhode Island, or at the Culinary Institute of America in New York City.
Before the graduates received their certificates and took photos in front of a cheering crowd delivering thunderous applause, Robinson, their mentor for the past three months, gave what he called one last lecture.
"Don't just work for a paycheck," he said. "Continue to work to make a difference. Despite where you're placed at, it's very important that you know your value, and that you continue to work not just to a job description, to meet comp standards … push yourself to work to your potential."
And then he reminded them, "This is a family, and you're always welcome here."