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New culinary program for veterans instills 'hope and empowerment'

Kent Robinson, a student in the U.S. VETS nonprofit organization’s culinary program, helps prepare dinner Monday evening at U.S. VETS in Prescott March 23. (Matt Hinshaw/The Daily Courier)

Kent Robinson, a student in the U.S. VETS nonprofit organization’s culinary program, helps prepare dinner Monday evening at U.S. VETS in Prescott March 23. (Matt Hinshaw/The Daily Courier)

PRESCOTT - Kent Robinson can all but taste the sweet pepper flavor of chiles rellenos cooking on the barbecue grill, and smell stuffed manicotti baking in the oven.

Robinson, 62, is one of eight U.S. VETS Initiative clients enrolled in a just-started, 13-week culinary/life skills course offered through its transitional housing program.

Through the endeavor launched in February, the former U.S. Navy corpsman said he is gleaning commercial kitchen skills he hopes will allow him to prepare these dishes for his fellow veterans, and eventually paying customers.

"It's very informative," the pony-tailed, bearded Robinson said of the project arranged through the nonprofit organization that provides housing and career training to some 300 homeless veterans each year. "I've always liked cooking, but a lot of this is new to me."

Beyond the 10 hours of weekend instruction in rudimentary culinary processes, such things as sanitary dishwashing and proper knife slicing techniques, the experiential curriculum taught on-site is meant to impart lessons transferable to employment in today's food industry. The vocational training requires online instruction throughout the week to enhance the students' limited computer literacy. Those sessions are tailored to focus on job skills such as how to write a resume, conduct a job interview, dress for success and build professional co-worker and employer relationships.

"This is really exciting; the hope factor and the empowerment," said Executive Director Annette Olson of this initiative rooted in a similar curriculum offered in her former hometown of Seattle, Washington.

At the end of each session, Olson said the plan is to have a "showcase dinner" open to the public prepared by the course graduates.

"It's working," Olson said. "It's a really special thing to watch."

In 2014, the 13-year transitional housing program, known as Veterans In Progress (VIP) moved from the Northern Arizona Veterans Affairs Health Care System's campus into a remodeled, downtown motel. The courtyard complex suitable for 56 homeless veterans with stays of up to two years contained a fully equipped commercial kitchen with an adjacent, windowed dining room complete with patio and black iron-works furniture.

With the new facility, Olson said the organization had the ability to expand its vocational training options, particularly as restaurants and commercial kitchen facilities in the are constantly on the lookout for trained personnel.

U.S. VETS managed to secure a $75,000 grant through the Arizona Department of Veteran Services' Veteran Fund. They then applied and contracted through AmeriCorps Vista for a yearlong program manager, Prescott College graduate William Heineke Jr.

Part of Heineke's role is to connect with local food service employers and tailor the curriculum to fit the actual job needs in the market. Heineke noted that there are now about 100 restaurant and food service jobs advertised for trained workers. He will be arranging for guest lecturers to also provide insights to the students.

The culinary skills are taught by Phoenix chef Jasun Zakro, also a veteran. Sessions have ranged from teaching the men how to chop vegetables and meat to bulk purchasing and cost containment by making more than one dish from one set of ingredients.

Ancillary to this new venture is the landscaping of a wheelchair accessible, permaculture garden and sanctuary at the rear of the complex, a project that eventually might tie into the culinary program if the fresh produce and fruit can be tied into daily menus.

Another of the students, John Hamlin, said he sees the new program as a means to a productive end: a food service career.

"It sure isn't easy," Hamlin wrote for an internal agency newsletter. "The chef pushes all of us students, but if it was easy it wouldn't be worth doing. I am getting a lot out of the program, and cannot wait to finish so I can get a job in the service industry."

Robinson notes his motivation to earn culinary certification is so he can earn a paycheck capable of affording him additional education at Yavapai College.

In the meantime, Robinson said he appreciates the challenge and the camaraderie.

"We're having a good time," Robinson said.

Follow Nanci Hutson on Twitter@HutsonNanci

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