By Mark Antonation for Westword | As Denver's dining scene continues to grow, finding good employees — or any employees at all — remains a major challenge. Last January, Emily Griffith Technical College launched its Culinary Quick Start program to give free training to those looking to enter food service as a profession. One year later and with ten four-week classes completed, Culinary Quick Start is making a mark by providing candidates trained in food safety, restaurant hospitality and basic kitchen skills.
The program started as a partnership among Emily Griffith, Sage Restaurant Group (which operates several eateries in Denver) andEatDenver, a network of independent restaurants headed by executive director Katie Lazor. She says that about 110 Culinary Quick Start graduates have landed jobs in Denver restaurants and other food-service companies since the program began.
In addition to food-service training, Quick Start also provides assistance in résumé and interviewing skills, and works with restaurant HR representatives (for those restaurant groups big enough to have dedicated HR staff) to ensure good placements in the right situations. "We also engage the restaurant community to get feedback on what's working in the classroom and what isn't," Lazor notes.
Emily Griffith Technical College has a cafe and sandwich shop where students can learn food-service skills.
Part of that direct engagement with restaurants comes in the form of chef demonstrations; for example, chef/restaurateur Frank Bonanno (owner of Mizuna, Luca, Osteria Marco and several other eateries) recently gave a fresh-pasta tutorial that had students making and rolling their own pasta dough. The demonstrations are a regular part of the curriculum, as much to give students exposure to which restaurants are hiring as to teach them specific cooking skills.
One of Bonanno's former chefs, Ben Whelan (who has worked at Mizuna and also at chef Alex Seidel's Fruition), is now an instructor for Culinary Quick Start. He's taught five cohorts — about 150 students total — over the past few months. He points out that since the classes are free and only last a month, students are often on the entry-level end of the spectrum, and he's even had homeless individuals taking classes in an attempt to get back on their feet financially.
Because of Whelan's professional connections (along with the network built by EatDenver), his students don't just sit at a desk and listen. Last fall, he took an entire class to Guard and Grace, a downtown steakhouse operated by chef Troy Guard, to see the variety of positions available and experience the pace of a professional kitchen firsthand.
Guard currently runs ten restaurants (with more on the way), so his TAG Restaurant Group has turned to Quick Start to find employees. TAG's director of training, Marcia Davisson, explains that the group has hired about five graduates of the program, including one cook who has worked her way up through three positions at Guard and Grace.
But not all graduates go directly to fast-paced restaurant kitchens; some land jobs at grocery stores such as Whole Foods Markets, while others find work at places like Ready Foods, a local company that specializes in prepared foods.
Culinary Quick Start holds a job fair at the end of each course to allow graduates to meet with representatives of restaurants and food-service companies. At the last job fair on January 24, Park Burger, Sage Restaurant Group's Urban Farmer, Biker Jim's Gourmet Dogs, TAG Restaurant Group and Secret Sauce F&B Concepts (which runs Vesta, Steuben's and Ace Eat Serve) were all on hand, and Governor John Hickenlooper, who was a co-founder of Denver's first brewpub, also appeared to give graduates some encouraging words about the possibilities that can open up once you start a food-service career.
Students interested in Culinary Quick Start can apply online (in English or Spanish); the next class begins at Emily Griffith Technical College, at 1860 Lincoln Street, on February 5. It will run from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Friday for four weeks, for a total of eighty classroom hours. Find out more here.
Mark Antonation is the Westword Food & Drink Editor. He got his start by eating at and writing about every restaurant on Federal Boulevard and continues to cover the metro area's diverse international food scene, as well as the city's quickly changing restaurant landscape.