TPC member Susanne Beck spoke with Toni Elka, the Executive Director and Founder of Future Chefs, an organization that introduces high school students to careers in the culinary arts. Currently, there are 126 students learning what it takes to work in the food industry, building the skills and experience that will lead to fulfilling and stable employment. Since its founding in 2008, Future Chefs is proud to boast an alumni group of over 500 well-equipped, confident masters of the culinary, and other, arts.
Q: Toni, how did you come to found Future Chefs, and what were your goals?
Future Chefs was really a natural outgrowth of so many other experiences I had had in both the food industry and in youth development. When the program I had been working on ended, I thought, “I am of a certain age and I don’t really want to work for someone else again. I know a fair amount about food and youth development. And I think I can build something that really goes deep on the development front, using culinary arts skills as the vehicle. It can be rigorous and a little bit out of the box. What do I have to lose?”
It has been well-documented that 50% of teens leave high school without a plan and begin almost immediately to fall behind. This became an important focus for me: I wanted to help these students develop a sense of mastery in a particular area and, therefore, help them build confidence. Whatever I chose to offer, it had to be rigorous – work hard and practice, practice, practice. What better vehicle to accomplish this than the culinary arts? Future Chefs captures their attention, builds their self-esteem, and helps them define what’s next. They’re able to set goals and objectives as they chart a path toward doing something purposeful. First and foremost, they’re able to secure what is considered to be respectable work in an industry with low barriers to entry. But whatever their starting point, there is also the opportunity to go in a million different directions, including into another profession. Future Chefs is about building skills that can be transferred to other settings. That remains a really important goal.
Q: How have you used TPC funding?
A critical issue for us now is managing a one-time move. Our test kitchen is located in the Boston Flower Market facility, which has recently been sold. We have to identify a new space quickly and manage the move as well. We have put together a fantastic Move Management Committee made up of builders, a kitchen designer, architects, and others. With their guidance and the TPC money, we feel much more confident that we will find a place that works within a reasonable amount of time.
Q: What else do you hope to get out of your relationship with TPC?
I really hope to develop a network of women who can be advisers and donors, and help us stay focused and connected so that we can do this work. Some of the strongest funder relationships I have had are with women. Maybe it’s because of their orientation or their more collaborative working style or their lack of ego around the “money issue.” For whatever reason, it has just worked. I would love to be connected with women who understand the challenges of being in a leadership role. I have never lacked for chutzpah, but sometimes my inner voice nags at me. Having a support group that has experienced similar challenges would be great.
Q: Tell us about one of your students who really stands out for you.
Aquila was at Madison Park High School. She wanted to go directly into cooking but I knew how smart she was and suggested to her that she should go to college. Her GPA at that point was 1.7 because she hadn’t applied herself in school. I went to bat for her to get a scholarship at Southern New Hampshire University. I told them, “Just trust me. If she doesn’t do well, she’ll withdraw.” They kindly agreed to accept her. Aquila finished in four years, went on to work in the food service industry, and then taught at Future Chefs for a year. She left to care for her mom, and now manages Jamaica Me Hungry food trucks. She has been amazing. But I have to say again, there are so many kids from Future Chefs who are like that – those who have had really amazing transformations, finding their way.
Q: Looking ahead, where do you hope to be in five years?
I would like to keep evolving, to build Future Chefs into something even more multi-faceted and interesting. I want to stretch our youth development boundaries. Maybe create incubators for young entrepreneurs? Maybe expand what we do in related fields like food photography? Maybe build even more and varied kinds of apprenticeships? We have added FC Delivers, which provides cooked meals for low-income people, and are talking about ways to expand that program. The one thing that won’t change is our focus on youth development outcomes. That is core and always will be. But, knowing me and the incredible people I have around me, we will never lack for ideas.
Q: If TPC members want to get more involved or help in some way, how can they?
A top priority right now is on the technology front. We would love to find someone to consult and call when we need to troubleshoot our internet, phone, and wireless problems and to audit our current systems to ensure that we have the optimal service plans for our needs.
We also need volunteers for a few different activities:
- Our Career Awareness Days
- Helping students practice speaking roles
- Helping us move next spring
- Working with us to create a plan for product donations
- Helping to send out solicitations for items like cookbooks, kitchen supplies, and, always, food
Below is a list of a few practical needs:
- Cost of sharpening knives ($145 X 6)
- Small kitchenware items in multiples (peelers, bowls, paring knives, etc.)
- Apprenticeship $100 start-up kits that include kitchen shoes, head gear, knife bag
- Host a student or organization membership in Chefs Collaborative
- Donated farm shares to provide produce we can use
- Office supplies like a vacuum, iPad, Bluetooth music speakers, popcorn popper
- Gift cards we can give as recognition gifts (e.g., 20 $5 Starbucks cards)