Monday, December 12, 2016

NECAT: A Culinary School Worthy Of Special Attention

This week, a unique culinary school in Boston, the New England Center for Arts & Technology (NECAT), will graduate another class of new cooks and those graduates will likely end up at a number of local restaurants and kitchens. Unfortunately, you probably know nothing about this culinary school and that really needs to change.

I didn't know anything about this culinary school until recently and after learning about it, I strongly believe that it needs much more attention. It is providing a great service to the community and needs our support in a number of ways. Local restaurants and other commercial kitchens should also learn about this school, to realize that it can be a valuable source for much needed kitchen staff.

The Boston area has a shortage of culinary help and this school is helping to fill that need but it also is helping their students forge a new future, providing them an opportunity for a fulfilling and rewarding career. This is especially important as some of these students are ex-convicts while others are recovering addicts. Some are high-school dropouts while others are unemployed or chronically underemployed.

NECAT is helping to show their students that they don't need to be defined by their past, that they can move forward despite what they might have once done. They are helped to believe in themselves so that they can change their lives for the better. They might have challenged backgrounds but that isn't sufficient to hold them back, if they are willing to work toward a better future. These are such worthy goals, creating a better community for all of us.

Located in the Newmarket business district, NECAT occupies the site of a former Asian banquet facility. Its origins extend back several years, to a chance meeting at a funeral. At this funeral, Maarten Hemsley (pictured above), a financial executive, met Bill Strickland, the founder of the Manchester Bidwell Corporation, a career and cultural training center established in Pittsburgh in 1968. Strickland replicated his centers in a number of regions across the U.S. and wanted to start one in the Boston area. He convinced Hemsley to do so, laying the foundation for NECAT.

Initially, NECAT considered creating a training center for medical technology jobs however, when researching the career needs of the Boston area, they saw the high need for culinary workers so decided to concentrate on that industry. NECAT, a nonprofit business, finally opened in September 2013, only three years ago. It is still a young company, having hired this past year a new Executive Director, Josephine Cuzzi, and a Culinary Director, Paul O'Connell (former Chef-Owner of Chez Henri). They, and the rest of the staff, are forging ahead, honing the concept and educational curriculum, as well as trying to raise the visibility of this fascinating institution.

I recently toured the NECAT facility and spoke with Executive Director Cuzzi, and was immediately struck by its dedication to aesthetics. In this regard, NECAT is following one of Strickland's guiding principles, that "Environment shapes people’s lives." As Strickland stated, “Environment shapes behavior. The beauty of the physical environment is essential. It nourishes the spirit. You can’t show a person how to build a better life if they feel no pleasure in the simple act of being alive. You can’t inspire a person to live a better life if they don’t know what a good life feels like.”

If you create a beautiful space for learning, it will help to show the students that they are valued, providing them more motivation to succeed. It will also make them feel better about where they are learning. If they were taught in some dingy kitchen, with outdated equipment, they wouldn't feel as good as they do as in a place like NECAT. The importance of aesthetics is not a concept that is commonly addressed in numerous businesses but it can have a significant impact. Maybe the aesthetics of the work place should be considered more often.

At NECAT, the hallways are decorated with a wide variety of artwork, inspirational posters and photography. For example, there is one section of hallway (pictured above) covered with numerous photographs of Martin Luther King, a nod to the center's dedication to social justice.

The entire facility is spacious and clean, well-lit and welcoming. The main kitchen is well outfitted with professional equipment. You feel like this is a quality facility and you would be proud to be taught here. It doesn't feel like they are cutting corners in any way. Students can feel like they are receiving a professional education, that the facility cares about their lives.

A significant portion of the classroom instruction occurs in a wood paneled auditorium which also acts a demonstration kitchen. There is an induction oven as well as two large video screens, allowing the students to see everything that the instructor does. During my visit, some of the students were studiously working on their culinary creations while others were talking with the instructor. There was a positive vibe in the air, with plenty of smiles and laughter, yet it was clear that this was a learning environment.

In this photo, you can see that the students are creating croquembouche, a traditional French dessert. I could perceive the intense concentration of the students as they tried to assemble their pyramids of pastry.

Students attend a 16-week culinary program, from Monday to Friday, from 9am-3pm each day. Initially, the program had been 28 weeks, from Monday to Thursday, but this was found to be too long and unnecessary. They were able to condense the program, without eliminating any significant information. Currently, a Culinary Director and two instructors determine the curriculum and teach the students.

During the first 8 weeks of the program, students wear a black hat and learn the basics, from knife cuts to various cooking techniques. During the second 8 weeks, the students exchange their black hats for orange ones, performing more actual cooking, as well as engaging in internships and stages (some paid) at various local restaurants and kitchens. As each class graduates, another class starts.

The students prepare lunch every day and guests are welcome to visit NECAT and partake of these lunches. I enjoyed one of their lunches last week, a hearty and tasty dish including chicken thighs, buffalo mac n' cheese, and a hash croquette. The students and instructors enjoy this lunch as well.

Students must present a professional appearance during the program, including ensuring that their uniforms are neatly pressed. As such, the school provides irons for the students to press their clothes, noting that not all of their students have access to an iron at their homes. Presenting a professional appearance is important for job interviews as well as when the graduates are hired by a restaurant or kitchen.

A new class, sometimes called a cohort, begins every eight weeks, and generally consists of about 30 people. By the time of graduation, that number is usually reduced to about 15-20 as some students drop out while others acquire a job and don't finish the program. NECAT is working on raising the percentage of graduates though it is challenging. They also would like to institute a second class, a night program, which would allow them to increase the number of students, though they need additional donations and funding to support that expansion. Since their opening, NECAT has graduated 325 students, each year growing the number of graduates. For example, they should graduate approximately 150 students in 2016.

As for the student demographics, here are some rough statistics. There is a ratio of about 70% men and 30% women, aged from 18 to 60 years old. About 84% are people of color, 53% are on public assistance, 26% are in addiction recovery, 40% have a criminal background and 35% are high school dropouts. Most of the students come from Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan, due to the proximity of the school, but students are welcome from any Massachusetts city or town.

As NECAT has a small budget, they aren't able to engage in much advertising, so they rely heavily on word of mouth and guerrilla marketing. They work with a number of social services, seeking potential students. They also attend some community events, showcasing the skills of their students. Every Tuesday, they hold information sessions for potential applicants, and usually there are about six applicants each week.

You can review their application criteria and note that applicants require a high school diploma or GED. In most other regards though, NECAT is "blind to admissions," meaning that they don't hold your past against you and have few restrictions. They are more concerned over whether you are willing to make a commitment to the program. It is estimated that the culinary training for each student is worth approximately $7,000 though applicants only have to pay a $200 fee, which covers a small portion of their supplies, from textbooks to uniforms.

Besides teaching culinary skills, NECAT also instructs the students in other life skills, such as working with a team, conflict resolution, job applications, interviewing, and more. The school wants to ensure they are ready for a new career, able to work well in a kitchen with others. The ultimate goal is to get graduates hired, at a living wage, and provide them a career path for the future. NECAT's graduates will acquire jobs such as Line Cook, Prep Cook, Garde Manger, Caterer, Line Supervisor, Baker, and Sous Chef.

NECAT currently works with about 60 Employer Partners, generally staying away from fast food restaurants. For example, some of those partners include local restaurants such as Puritan & Co., Taranta, and Tremont 647, while other partners include the New England Aquarium, Boston Children's Hospital and the Seaport Hotel. Most recently, Eataly has hired more than a dozen NECAT graduates, and probably will hire more in the near future.

Legal Sea Foods has also hired a number of NECAT graduates and one of their representatives stated to me, "We’ve hired about 7 NECAT graduates this year, and we hope to hire more in the future. We’ve found these graduates to be hard-working and motivated, and a great fit for the open positions we have. We are involved in the program – our Chefs have enjoyed speaking to NECAT classes about Legal Sea Foods and employment opportunities, and sharing their real-world experiences. And we look forward to growing the relationship."

Currently, NECAT calculates that their graduates earn an average of $14 an hour, though they have only just started to track their past graduates to determine what they are currently doing. NECAT is beginning to establish a formal alumni network, which will help them better determine the success of their graduates.

Obviously, funding is essential to the continuation and possible expansion of this culinary program. NECAT relies heavily on state and municipal grants and foundations for revenue. In Friday's Boston Globe, Adrian Walker reported that Governor Charlie Baker's proposed budget could cut $300,000 in state aid to NECAT, about 20% of their budget, which would have a significant negative impact on NECAT's programs. Hopefully that won't occur or a supplemental budget will get passed to restore those lost monies. If the cuts do go through, NECAT will really need additional funding from other sources, from donations to other grants.

Even if their budget is not cut, NECAT still would benefit from additional funding, from whatever source. For example, individual and/or institution donations can be very helpful and you can check out their Donations page for more details on how you can help. In addition, you could also hire NECAT to cater your next event, whether a private party or corporate get-together.

NECAT has also begun a Master Chef Series, fundraising events where they will bring in chefs from all over the world to cook with NECAT students and hold a special dinner. Their first dinner was held last Thursday evening, presenting famed Israeli Chef Uri Jeremias, who owns the Uri Buri seafood restaurant in Akko. I attended the event as a media guest and will be writing about it in the near future. Future Master Chef events are in the planning stages now.

However, to acquire additional funding and donations, NECAT needs greater visibility, for people to understand all of the good that this program provides to the community. Not only are they helping to provide employees for local restaurants and kitchens, but more importantly, they are helping people make better lives for themselves. These people have struggled in their lives, because of various challenging factors, and they can be helped if we are willing to give them an opportunity.

Adrian Walker's Boston Globe article, which I mentioned earlier, also related the story of Khristopher Reed (pictured above), who is set to graduate this week and will begin working at Eataly as a butcher. At last week's Master Chef dinner, I was fortunate to hear Khristopher tell his inspirational story, as he noted that "life is full of changes." He told us of some of the challenges of his life and how so much has turned around due to NECAT's culinary program. He has made many excellent friends among the other students and is so eager to learn new things. He has always had a passion for cooking and now is able to work in that field, due to the opportunity he was given and his own personal dedication to the program. And his is but one of the many inspirational stories you will find at NECAT.

Let us find ways to raise the visibility of NECAT, to share its inspirational stories, to relate its successes. 

Restaurant owners and managers, I strongly encourage you to consider hiring NECAT graduates to fill openings in your kitchens. We all know there is a shortage of good culinary employees and this is a resource you should be using. You not only will be hiring new employees, but you will be helping these graduates start new lives. If you are interested in exploring the possibilities, check out NECAT's Employee Partners page, which provides you the contact information you need.

For my other readers, I encourage you to learn more about NECAT and give them your support. Take a tour of the facility, have lunch there, or attend a future event. If you can donate money to NECAT, please do so. And importantly, help spread the word about NECAT. It needs to be much better known and strongly depends on word of mouth to do so. If you know anyone who would benefit from attending NECAT's culinary program, please tell them about the opportunities.

NECAT is more than worthy of your attention. Please share their story.


CLM said...

Great story. I thought I was knowledgeable about NECAT but learned quite a bit from your post. Governor Baker's cuts are very upsetting, and the potential impact to NECAT is disturbing.

Richard Auffrey said...

Thanks CLM! Let us hope the cuts don't go through.