Food is a force for good – good flavor, good will, good health, good community, and good vibes along the way. We love working with vibrant ingredients and bold flavors, but just as important as the food we create are the inspiring people we work alongside to share the power of food.
Enter Toni Elka and Loni Zelfon, founder/executive director and program manager of Future Chefs, our nonprofit partner in our newest home of Boston.
Toni founded Future Chefs ten years ago with a vision: to create opportunities for young people who lacked a plan after high school. She knew that food jobs had a low barrier to entry and high potential to unlock creativity, build confidence, and open a multitude of doors for Boston’s youth. So she got to work – and students soon followed.
Also following Toni was Loni, who jokes that she came to Future Chefs by way of stalking the organization’s trailblazing leader. After seeing an article about Toni’s vision in Edible Boston, Loni knew Future Chefs was exactly what she had been looking for.
It’s that type of infectious passion that you often find in food people. Maybe it’s a life-changing meal that inspires it or perhaps it’s working in a kitchen with that perfect balance of teamwork and talent – but either way, it’s the mark of a person we know we have to work with. So we sat down with Toni and Loni to talk about Future Chefs’ mission, how they approach teaching life and knife skills, and their plan for inspiring culinary interest in Boston’s high schoolers for years to come.
How do students begin working with Future Chefs?
Loni: A number of ways – sometimes it’s because their friend or cousin participated in the program. Other times, they have a great guidance counselor, teacher, parent, or other caring adult in their lives who makes the connection between their culinary interests and Future Chefs. They apply online, come in for an interview, check out the kitchen, and it’s on from there.
What are some of the specific skills you teach students?
Loni: We practice kitchen language in every single class – from “Heard” to “Yes, Chef,” “Behind You,” “Hot,” Sharp,” and so on. We review the classic knife cuts – julienne, batonnet, chiffonade, and more. We fabricate whole chickens. And then on the other side of things, we help students prepare their resumes, practice for job interviews, and network with culinary professionals.
How do you strike that balance between teaching life and food skills? What are some of the most important lessons in both?
Loni: The life skills we teach are heavily infused in everything we do, in and out of the kitchen. We open every class with [an exercise called] “attitude/gratitude” to talk about what has been difficult in the day and what we are looking forward to. Then once we get in the kitchen, there is an opportunity for students to check in amongst themselves or with staff and to also feel positive about the product they create.
At the end of class, we sit down to a family meal and “shoutout” each other, meaning that students recognize each other for an action that made their day better.
Lessons that build self- and group-reflection along with basic kitchen concepts (like gathering your mise en place) directly translate to real life.
You set yourself up for success through preparation, anticipating what you will need, and thinking critically about challenges that come up along the way.
Is there a particular part of the curriculum that students tend to look forward to?
Loni: The projects, for sure. When I started at Future Chefs, there was already a tradition of great capstone events – one is called Skill Drill, where students compete through showcasing their knife and technical kitchen skills. A few years ago, we created an event called Small Plates Pop-up for our graduating seniors to create and execute a dish for a group of Future Chefs supporters – and this year we had 13 students and 90 guests!
It’s a huge opportunity for students to feel the pressure of a real kitchen, the sense of community on a busy line, and the adrenaline rush when you wrap up a big night.
How do you inspire culinary passion in students?
Loni: When we see that spark of interest in culinary a student has, we feed it (pardon the pun). We take students to culinary events around the city, like Chefs in Shorts or CREATE, where they work alongside some of the biggest names in the local industry. We encourage them to try new things – “get comfortable being uncomfortable” as we say – and in turn, they encourage each other to do the same.
What path do most of the students follow after Future Chefs?
Toni: Our program is set up to provide students with at least two years of post-high school coaching and support. They create a plan and refine it as they begin to put it into practice. They could be working in the industry while taking classes, doing a paid apprenticeship, going directly into a certificate program or a two- or four-year college. Everyone chooses a different path but what they have in common is Future Chefs as a springboard for their dreams and aspirations.
What new and exciting endeavors are on the horizon for Future Chefs?
Toni: We’re really excited to pilot FC Shares, a new social enterprise [we’re starting] that is kind of like a CSA – only it will sell prepared food shares. This is exciting because it’ll get the word out about Future Chefs to a bigger base of support. FC Shares will create the means for us to employ youth in real food production jobs and get them ready to meet the standards of the employers who share our values of respect for the craft and respect for food workers.What are some of your goals – big and small – for 2018?
Toni: In 2018, we want to triple the number of Boston high school teens who explore food careers through our new six-week introductory class. It uses Expeditionary Learning to put students in the driver’s seat and [it] creates a way for them to use that going forward, whether they stay with us or move on. We’re also actively searching for a new teaching kitchen to move into at the end of the school year, so that’s another big goal.
Any favorite Future Chefs alumni stories?
Toni: There are so many. One of the most exciting moments was recommending Aquila Kentish, a student from our first cohort, for a Kahn Academy profile. She epitomizes the entrepreneurial potential that so many young people have in this country, if only they had access to the support, connections, and high expectations of adults in the community.
Last year, one of our students, David Rankin – who completed an apprenticeship with our partner, SRV – presented at the State House for Mass Mentoring Day about the value of programs like Future Chefs that combine coaching and mentoring with real work experience. Another alum spearheaded an appeal last year that raised over $20,000.
We know we’ve done our job when students succeed AND pay it forward.
Are those the most rewarding moments?
Loni: Yes, [it’s most rewarding] when the youth come back and share their success. And it looks different for every student. Sometimes, it’s immediate, when a student goes to their first event and at the end they say, “I got this chef’s card – they want me to come in for a stage!” Other times, it’ll be much later in their career, when they’re leading their own kitchen or business, and they’re ready and excited to teach the younger group.