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Syracuse nonprofit trains formerly incarcerated people to work in food industry

Larenz Coker-Hawkins holds a plate of a pork chop with apple chutney, carrots and mashed potatoes
Ava Pukatch
Larenz Coker-Hawkins holds a plate of a pork chop with apple chutney, carrots and mashed potatoes

Syracuse Stage's production of "Clyde's" by Lynn Nottage explores the lives of formerly incarcerated people working at a truck stop and their quest to create the perfect sandwich. The Center for Community Alternatives has a Syracuse program training formerly incarcerated people to be line cooks.

Setareki Wainiqolo who plays Montrellus in "Clyde's" acts as a guide for his kitchen brigade.

"There is a line in the play that Montrellus says and it's 'Just because you left prison doesn't mean you're out of prison. But remember this kitchen, these ingredients. These are our tools, and everything we do here is to escape that mentality,'" Wainiqolo said. "I think, as an individual giving your energy to something and and watching yourself get better at it, become more confident, and feel really encouraged by your work and and your love of it — I think that's a beautiful way for folks to potentially find their footing again."

The Center for Community Alternatives is the community partner for "Clyde's" at Syracuse Stage. Ron Boxx, Director of Reintegration Services at CCA, said having a pathway for folks to access jobs is important — especially for folks who are moving on past incarceration.

"There was a Brookings Institute study that showed that almost half of people who are released from incarceration were not employed 12 months later," Boxx said. "And it's a key indicator for public safety for someone to be able to maintain employment."

CCA facilitates a 6-week long program. Participants become ServSafe certified and learn essential cooking skills as they train at the Salt City Test Kitchen. In the last week of the program, they'll intern at Salt City Market.

There are four participants in this cohort. On their second day of hands-on training, they finish up practicing their knife skills by chopping carrots, and preparing them for a soup they'll be cooking later.

An orange expo marker on the kitchen's whiteboard above the day's task list reads "I am not now, that I once was!"

"Every class, it stays up there all the time because I believe in that and CCA believes in that," Chef Joseph Bilecki, who heads the program, explains the meaning. "The worst day of my life should not define me for the rest of my life. Right? I screwed up. I paid my time. Let's move forward and maybe be treated like a human being."

Bilecki says a lot of people don't realize how easy cooking can be. He said once they learn some of the basic techniques, things start to come together. The food tastes good and they stand a little taller in the kitchen. Now he has them hooked.

"The food service industry doesn't really care what you did," Bilecki said. "They care that you show up, you show up on time, you do your job. That's what matters. For our clients, this is a good career path — you put in your time, you can make quite a bit of money."

Participants receive a $100 stipend for completing each week and bus passes every Monday.

Past participants in the CCA Line Cook Training Program have gone on to work at other local kitchens like Dinosaur Barbeque and Oh My Darling. Bilecki hopes to break down transportation barriers for folks to get to full-time jobs outside of the city.

Others like current participant Regina Brunelli hope to go to culinary school and eventually open their own restaurant. She said the brigade gets each other.

"We know we're not here to judge each other on our past, but help each other build the future," Brunelli said.

For Larenz Coker-Hawkins it gave him something to want.

"When you're a felon, you don't really know your opportunities or what's out there," Coker-Hawkins said. "I want to get myself in a better position, so — better positions, better money. Plus you learn how to cook while you're here so I'm doing stuff at home now too."

Representatives from CCA and participants of the Syracuse line cook training program are participating in a post-show discussion of "Clyde's" on February 16.

Ava Pukatch joined the WRVO news team in September 2022. She previously reported for WCHL in Chapel Hill, NC and earned a degree in Journalism and Media from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At UNC, Ava was a Stembler Scholar and a reporter and producer for the award-winning UNC Hussman broadcast Carolina Connection. In her free time, Ava enjoys theatre, coffee and cheering on Tar Heel sports. Find her on Twitter @apukatch.