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10:49 AM CDT on Wednesday, April 8, 2009

By KAREN ROBINSON-JACOBS / The Dallas Morning News
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Don’t think Anetria Gilbert needs practice cooking. She has 15 children. They all eat. But Gilbert and seven other clients at Family Gateway are going into the kitchen to perfect new skills. Officials at Family Gateway, which provides housing and training for homeless families, say they hope those skills can help the clients craft new lives.

The eight are part of a new culinary training program that Family Gateway launched last month. After 12 weeks, participants will try to get entry-level chef jobs at full-service restaurants.

Under discussion for four years, the program is getting under way as the restaurant industry is peeling away jobs like layers of an onion. Still, Gilbert and the program’s backers don’t see their efforts as dicey.

“I’ve always wanted to cook, so I was really game for this,” said Gilbert, 45, who lived at Family Gateway for a year before moving into public housing over the weekend.

“This will help me as far as my skill and knowledge, working in a restaurant beyond fast food. I’ll spice up things.”

Modular and starkly white, Family Gateway sits on South St. Paul Street at downtown’s fringe. It’s a nonprofit agency that helps families at the edge.

Gilbert has seven children under 16, no child support, no spouse and, before last weekend, no permanent home.

Lisa Vargas, 44, a single mother of two, said her ex can’t be found. Neither can her child support payments.

LaSandra Walker, 30, is weighed down by a 1998 felony conviction for aggravated assault and a past addiction to alcohol and marijuana.

“It hasn’t been easy at all,” said Walker, taking a break as steaming cauldrons of soup, prepared by the students, bubbled in the center’s newly remodeled kitchen.

“This felony is old, but they’re hanging it over my head. Like they can’t give me a second chance.”

Second chances

Family Gateway is largely about second chances.

Launched in 1986 to aid homeless families, the program has traditionally offered only one training course – in retailing.

While working on a fundraiser for Family Gateway four years ago, local chef Sharon Van Meter suggested that they gut the kitchen and teach interested residents to cook.

At that time, Van Meter, executive director of the Milestone Culinary Art Center in Dallas, recognized the industry’s growing need for entry-level employees.

Work began last fall to improve the kitchen and expand it from 800 square feet to 1,600. It’s now filled with donated or deeply discounted professional-grade equipment, said architect Walter Kilroy, who helped draw up the plans.

“This is a fresh start,” Van Meter said. “And we realized right away that it pretty much had to be a new kitchen to go with their new lives.”

But as construction started, the food service industry was slogging through a slump brought on by consumers cutting back on dining out. That’s especially true at full-service, sit-down restaurants, where Family Gateway’s students hope to find jobs at the program’s end.

Seventy-five percent of owners of casual-dining and fine-dining restaurants surveyed Feb. 23 to March 6 said they have reduced staffing levels or hours, according to a study by Dallas-based People Report, which tracks human resource trends in food service.

“The market is tight,” said Joni Thomas Doolin, chief executive officer and founder of People Report. “There’s still a lot of doom and gloom.”

Even so, Doolin said, “there are still jobs out there.”

“If they’re training them to be bartenders or waiters, the customer-facing jobs in the better restaurants, those jobs are not moving,” Doolin said. “If they’re training them to be entry level, they’re going to find jobs would be my best guess.”

Combo deal

The Family Gateway training is a combination of three separate courses from El Centro College in Dallas: basic food preparation, sanitation and safety, and cooperative work experience for restaurants, which focuses on keeping the kitchen humming.

The students spend the first six weeks in the Family Gateway kitchen, then fan out for six-week “externships” at restaurants and hotels.

The program’s already gotten externship commitments from Maguire Restaurant Concepts and the Original Pancake House, said C. “Gus” Katsigris, director of Family Gateway’s new effort.

Mark Maguire, owner of Maguire Restaurant Concepts, said he agreed to offer an externship at one of his three restaurants, even though he’s laid off more than 10 staff members in the past few months.

“This is a great investment,” he said. “On a long-term basis, we still project massive growth” in the restaurant industry.

Program backers said they’ll rely on a network of more than 3,000 local restaurants, hotels and other venues to find permanent spots for the students.

“They’re going to be working chefs,” said Katsigris, who launched El Centro’s Food and Hospitality Services program in 1970. “It’s crucial that we have employment. That’s the end goal.”

For many of the students, getting that first job is only the near-term goal.

Mary Gordon, 42, is a single mother who arrived at Family Gateway in late February with her two sons, 8 and 2.

She said she would like to open up a specialty store, like Whole Foods or Central Market. “A high-end food store,” she said.

The former Houston resident said her husband walked out last November, frustrated at the family’s lack of cash. Evicted from their Houston apartment, she and the children sought refuge first in a Houston shelter, then with a friend in Lancaster and finally at Family Gateway.

Ambling down the narrow hallways of Family Gateway, she just happened to see a posting for the culinary training program.

“When I seen the opportunity, right away the floodgates opened in my mind as to where I could go with this,” said Gordon, who said she worked the deli station at the Houston Eatzi’s, a high-end food store, in 2004.

“I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, this will be the steppingstone to get to my goal, to my dream, my vision.’ ”

Gordon said she’s not concerned about finding a job.

“I’m confident that I will be employed,” she said, gently nudging strands of hair back under her hair net.

“I don’t look at the economy. That will just depress me. I just stay focused and work on my goal.”