PEABODY — Jorge Vazquez knows his way around the kitchen, having learned to cook while serving in the Puerto Rico Army National Guard.
"I always liked the kitchen," said Vazquez, 53, of Peabody.
Recently, while living at Citizens Inn having become homeless, he heard about a new culinary training program at Citizens Inn Haven from Hunger's brand-new commercial kitchen on Wallis Street.
Now living on his own with his 17-year-old son, Vazquez said in a phone interview he was excited to be among the program's first eight participants.
Starting March 25, Vazquez will be part of a 15-week pilot program between Citizens Inn and North Shore Community College designed to give participants the skills they need to get a job in the food service industry. He's excited that a chef will be teaching him how to cook.
"I want to learn some tricks from this guy," Vazquez said.
Citizens Inn Executive Director Corey Jackson said the organization has been eager to be able to train some of members of the 34 low-income families experiencing homelessness the agency works with. Haven from Hunger also sees 4,000 households from Peabody, Salem and Lynnfield come through this program each year.
Among those families that are homeless, incomes range from zero and $5,000 a year. Jackson said the goal of the culinary training program is to give participants a boost into the workforce, despite the fact that culinary jobs are relatively low-wage.
"I'm not looking at this as the end game," Jackson said. "I'm looking at this as the first job and that sort of first income, and a boost to the morale of the individual ... and then we can go from there."
The seed for the culinary training program was planted in July 2017, when the nonprofits of Citizens Inn and Haven from Hunger merged.
Last year, Citizens Inn installed a new, larger commercial kitchen in the basement of Haven from Hunger. Now, the organization wants to increase programming to take advantage of the new facility.
"We sat down as a board and senior staff and said: 'Why, why would we merge with Haven from Hunger?' This was a big part of that strategy," Jackson said. "It was how does it help us grow our mission with families experiencing homelessness as well as be a bigger resource to the community at large. So this program is definitely going to ... solidify all that for us."
Jackson approached North Shore Community College about partnering on the culinary training program.
"It just seems like a no-brainer," he said. "They are the first stop for a lot of families if they want to go back to school."
Local restaurants and assisted living facilities in need of food service workers have expressed interest in the program, too.
"When we talk to restaurants about this, they are all dying for trained help," said Jackson.
The program will run four days a week for 15 weeks, and it will incorporate North Shore Community College's culinary arts curriculum and be taught by one of the college's adjunct faculty members.
Mondays will involve learning work skills and preparing for the ServeSafe certificate exam.
Tuesday through Thursday, participants will work in the kitchen under the community college's instruction, which will also involve local restaurant and market employment partners.
The program not only aims to find participants a job at the back of the house, but to help them earn a culinary degree — the program converts to credits at North Shore Community College.
Jackson said a lot of culinary arts programs cater to high school or college age students. But he said Citizens Inn has identified a lot of interest among those heading up households in the 25- to 40-year-old age range.
Eric Frauwirth, dean of Career and Technical Education and Business at North Shore Community College, said it was Jackson that reached out looking for curriculum help.
"We offered to do more than curriculum help," Frauwirth said. "We are a community college and working with the community is who we are."
Citizens Inn Haven from Hunger will use the meals the participants prepare.
Jackson said the agency is also looking at whether government retraining dollars might be available to help participants pay for the program. They've also tapped the Salem-based North Shore Workforce Investment Board for help.
"There are several paths to be able to subsidize the training because they are on benefits," he said, "Part of the government's role in this is to say: 'Well, we'll subsidize some of this training so that we can get you off either off these benefits or receive less in benefits."
Jackson said they are also looking to rent out the new commercial kitchen to raise money.
There is a need for culinary workers with the restaurant industry booming amid a strong economy, Frauwirth said. There are far more job openings available than any of the area culinary programs can fill. Frauwirth pointed to the scheduled June opening of the Encore Boston Harbor casino, which will require 1,500 culinary and hospitality jobs.
Whether Vazquez can find a job in the field remains to be seen. He may only be looking for a part-time job, as a work-related back injury makes it hard for him to stand up for a long time. But he wants to learn new skills, take his son along to learn how to cook, and perhaps someday cook the community meals served by Haven from Hunger so he can give back to the organization.
"They are angels on Earth to me," Vazquez said.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @TannerSalemNews.
If you go
What: Brews and Bites, an informational session about the new culinary program
When: 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 24
Where: Essex County Brewing Company, 58 Pulaski St., Building A, Peabody
To attend: RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org