Renowned chef Jacques Pépin spent his Friday afternoon with eight enthusiastic local chefs, all from the Billings Forge Community Works culinary training program, showing them basic techniques that they can carry beyond the demonstration at the local cafe The Kitchen.

These eight individuals, from current job trainees to recent graduates and working chefs, had the opportunity to spend a few hours in the presence of Pépin, and be a working example of the mission of The Jacques Pépin Foundation.

“What we do is we support community-based culinary arts training programs that provide free life skills and culinary training, specifically to adults with barriers to employment,” said Rollie Wesen, co-founder, vice president and executive director of The Jacques Pépin Foundation.

“The experience that I gained here besides cooking is confidence and just knowing that people don’t give up on you, especially if you don’t give up on yourself,” Nathaniel Rivera, a recent graduate of the Billings Forge Community Works program said. “I was jobless for a whole year prior to finding the program about The Kitchen, and if it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be where I am right now. And that’s the honest truth.”
Rivera is now a line chef at Firebox, and he landed his job through his internship with the restaurant as part of The Kitchen’s culinary program. He said the opportunity to learn from Pépin was “phenomenal.”

“Never have I ever thought that I would meet Jacques, let alone be cooking with him,” Rivera said. “So this experience is pretty incredible for me; I’m still trying to grasp it as I’m right next to him.”

Rivera wasn’t the only one who got to take away from the hands-on experience with Pépin. Ruby VanGuilder and Felicia Jenkins, both of who have been cooking for over 10 and 20 years, respectively, said their time in the kitchen with Pépin was a privilege.

VanGuilder has worked at The Kitchen for five years.

“[Cooking is] literally a passion that I’ve had and I no matter what [and] I refuse to look into anything else,” VanGuilder said. “I see myself doing this for the rest of my life and improving and moving on and doing some great things.”

A more experienced cook, Jenkins has been with The Kitchen off and on for the last decade. Both VanGuilder and Jenkins shared they each learned something they will carry with them beyond the walls of The Kitchen.

“I think it’s a good experience for all the trainees; for them to see all of this and be able to participate first-hand,” Jenkins said. “I think it will complement and add to their drive to push themselves and go the distance.”

Pépin said the beauty of these experiences provide him with a “spectrum of people” who he’d never meet otherwise, especially through the French Culinary Institute or other universities due to economic reasons.

Although his passion is kept strong through creating a space to provide “disenfranchised” folks with the opportunity to better themselves through these basic cooking techniques, Pépin also said he keeps his passion alive because, “I’m hungry all the time!”