Learning from the master at Forge City Works


Recently we had the tremendous honor and pleasure of spending time with legendary Chef Jacques Pépin over a delicious bottle of wine at  e Kitchen. Jacques, and his son-in-law Rollie Wesen, the Executive Director of the Jacques Pépin Foundation (JPF), were in Hartford to help raise awareness for Forge City Works. The Foundation supports free culinary and life-skills training through community- based organizations like Forge City. So importantly, Jacques was also there to teach cooking techniques to the excited staff at The Kitchen.

We also enjoyed a fabulous dinner with Cary Wheaton, the Executive Director of Forge City Works (FCW) at Firebox, the restaurant which helps support FCW, a culinary training program which provides training, internships, and job opportunities for more than 50 youth and adults each year in their Kitchen cafes.

I have to admit that meeting Chef Pépin was pretty overwhelming, but he is such an interesting and gracious man that we fell into comfortable conversation immediately. The wine may have helped as well. At age 83 he is now in his 70th year in the kitchen since he left home in Bourg-en-Bresse, France, in 1949 at age 13 to become an apprentice. He was in the kitchen at his parents’ restaurant, Le Pelican, since he was five. He should certainly be relaxing on the Connecticut coast now but instead works tirelessly for the JPF.

What drives him? “I have been teaching forever, I like to teach. At Boston University (which is home to the Jacques Pépin Legacy Fund) for 38 years, the French Culinary Institute over 30 years. My book, La Technique came out in 1975, and it’s still in print! Why, because the way to whip an egg white is the way you whip an egg white!”

“Cooking is what I know the best and what I’m the best at. I’m happy to bring a certain amount of knowledge to people who don’t have access to this. Most of those people in the kitchen can’t afford the $30-35,000 for FCI or at BU. Bringing that to them, and especially to people who maybe have been disenfranchised by life, whether it’s drug addicts, or whether it’s homelessness, or veterans, or people who are coming out of jail to give them another chance. Not to work at Daniel or Per Se but to learn basic cooking techniques so they can kind of, you know, redo their life.”

Rollie adds, “When we started the foundation, the Jacques Pépin Foundation, Claudine (Jacques’ daughter) and I brought it to Jacques and he said ‘Well it’s about time we got something started.’ But then we came to him with a sort of menu, there’s a lot of things we can do, focus on childhood obesity, or we can think about access or scholarships for high school student…all kinds of different things or we can help people who have just gotten out of jail learn how to cook and he said, ‘That’s the one, that’s what we should be doing.’ He picked that out.”

“And then we realized, there are hundreds of organizations all over the country, like Forge City Works, an exceptional example of community kitchens that are using this opportunity of social enterprise … that help people learn skills that get them back into the work force.”

“FareStart, in Seattle really helped us understand the breadth what we were getting into.” FareStart has a program called Catalyst Kitchen that was so effective they committed to building similar programs around the world. Rollie continues, “Now they have 70 members across the country, one of which is Forge City Works.  at helped us realize there are these kinds of community based culinary training programs all over the country.”

Jacques says sincerely, “They’re mostly homeless people. Its amazing. They pick up people o the street, give them a shirt, give them a place to sleep then, they put them in the kitchen. It doesn’t work 100% of the time but you’d be surprised, 70-75% of the time. And look, you know Andrew Zimmern, he’s a very good friend of ours and he works with us, he’s very big on that. You know Andrew was a homeless guy in NY…he reclaimed his life in cooking.”

Rollie adds, “And we love that it’s not just culinary skills, it’s not just about a job. When you learn to cook it gives you satisfaction, it gives you pride, it gives you purpose. An opportunity to cook better, eat better, eat healthier for yourself.”

It’s such a testament that the JPF partners with so many others, furthering a global agenda rather than simply their own. Rollie says, “Yes, we’re all about all ships rise. We thought about what we could offer. We have this amazing library of content, Jacques has written 30 books, I teach at Johnson & Wales, and Jacques has been teaching for decades. We bring this level of pedagogy and an enormous amount of content. So now we offer a grant program, scholarships, cook-books, and hands-on direct teaching like we did today.”

What attracted them to Forge City Works? “Part of it is that of all the community kitchens we’ve come across, this one is excellent,” Rollie says. “Cary and her team have done an amazing job of running this operation and have a very high success rate with their students. We try to work our way around and support different regional events…recently in Boston, Phoenix, Seattle, and so on.”

In leading the growth of FCW, Cary seems to have followed a similar path. “As a non-profit we apply for funding all the time from foundations to support our job training work. It is all embedded in our culinary social enterprises, our two cafes and our catering business. But obviously the price of a curried chicken sandwich does not pay for all of the training. We read about the JPF and that they supported this kind of work. They gave us a small grant and importantly, we realized they were connected with Catalyst Kitchen. As Rollie said they have been around probably for 25 or 30 years and we felt that if we could be collaborative and do best practices, we could have a much bigger impact.”

“There are three basic tenants that drive Catalyst Kitchens. First is feeding the hungry. The second is culinary job training and the third is social enterprise. So that model of three is usually what drives the 70 members. We’re a little unusual because we’re heavier on the social enterprise side and I think this comes from my background frankly, and owning restaurants.”

“We went together to a Catalyst Kitchen seminar because that’s the kind of work they do. Bring everybody together, talk about best practices, what works, what doesn’t work, and a lot of our work is also really about finding inroads into employers to get jobs for people. It’s actually fairly easy to get restauranteurs open to new hiring practices. In the restaurant business we have a bunch of wacky people and people who used to be drunk or used to be you know whatever, and so people are open to support us.”

“So it’s not so hard to get them involved. The challenge there is sometimes a couple of things. One is that the pathway to a middle-income job is really hard because we still pay people in the kitchen low wages. If you have a family you want to support being in the service part is often hard. If you’ve never worked in fine dining, you know a waiter here, somewhere, it’s difficult.”

“But there are a lot of corporate cafeterias, especially in this area, corporate cafeterias that have like 14 different managers on any given day because they have three cafeterias and they have their service manager and they tend to be middle income jobs that don’t serve alcohol and people can work nine to five with full benefits. But because they’re corporate, they tend to be less forgiving, you know, for people with criminal backgrounds or what have you so that’s one of our challenges.”

Rollie sees the tremendous opportunity as well. “There are 650k vacancies in food service around the county right now, it’s a welcoming profession for people of all walks of life. It doesn’t matter where you came from, what color your skin is, who you worship, if you get up, put the shirt on, if you do the job then you’re accepted.”

“The point is to know technique transcends nationality,” says Jacques.

These days Jacques is often surrounded by family and family is clearly very important to him. We wondered if this work, the Foundation, is sort of an extension of family for him ? They take all these folks, these kids under their wing. It’s very inspiring.

“Well the whole food world is a family in a way,” says Jacque. “There is no political implication in what we do, there’s no racial implications, no gender implication, no religion implication. You’re in the kitchen and everyone is the same. The point is, to a certain extent, the way the world is polarized today, especially in the US, maybe cooking is the only thing you can talk about!

Luckily, Jacques leaves us with another wonderful anecdote of his amazing life. “Farm to table was always a mystery to me because when I was a kid in France of course we went to the farm. Then I came here and then it started with Alice Waters who I know well. The first time I had dinner there with James Beard, I think in 1976, and she was just opening. And when they talked it was like ‘Can you imagine, she goes and gets food from a farm?’ And I’m saying, ‘Yes, so what’s the big deal?’”