Bernice Parenti didn’t find her dream job in Charlotte. It came to Charlotte and found her. Parenti is a native of Rhode Island, the home base of Johnson & Wales University. And she has played such a role in establishing the school’s Charlotte campus that she’s practically the school mascot, from starting the popular Chef’s Choice classes to lining up spots for students at nonprofits all over town. But here’s the surprise: Those two things are a coincidence. Parenti didn’t come here with Johnson & Wales. She was already here, a Northeasterner living in a strange Southern city and not sure if it was the place for her. “I will admit,” she says, “it wasn’t until Johnson & Wales that I committed to stay.” Parenti is married to an Italian-American, Frank Parenti. With her big brown eyes and spot-on fashion sense, she looks Italian. But she’s actually from a big, close-knit Portuguese family in Bristol, R.I. Her grandparents immigrated from the Azores to escape the volcanoes and settled in the Northeast. She grew up with family all around her, with aunts and cousins and grandparents all within a few blocks. “Food was everything, family was everything. Everything centered around food. You can’t have enough food at a Portuguese family party.” Parenti married at 19 and raised three kids – two daughters and a son. Frank was in banking and they had settled in Boston, where he worked for Fleet Financial Group (which later merged with Bank of America). In the late 1990s, he got downsized the day before Bernice was diagnosed with breast cancer. “It was a tough day,” she says now. “He’s so calm. He said, ‘First, we get you well. Then, I’ll find a new job.’ And that’s what we did.” A lot of bankers from New England had come to Charlotte, so he was able to find a job here. He packed his clothes in the car and drove down, leaving Bernice to sell the house. “I had no idea where Charlotte even was. I said, ‘Is it near the ocean?’” Parenti had always bounced around from job to job. She did all kinds of things, even managed a box office. Her degree was in education, and she specialized in adult education, retraining people who had lost manufacturing jobs in the Northeast. Her mother had worked in a factory, so she understood the culture and really loved helping people. “I could relate to these people,” she says. In Charlotte, she bounced around again, first placing people for a temp agency, then doing training for an information technology company. “It wasn’t a fire in my belly, but it was OK.” She had a close friend back in Providence who was the assistant to Jack Yena, then the president of Johnson & Wales. When Parenti told her friend she was about to be between jobs again, her friend said, “Send me your resume and don’t ask any questions.” Parenti thought that was odd – she had no plans to go back to Rhode Island. But she did as she was told. Her friend turned up to be keeping a very big secret: Johnson & Wales was about to close its campuses in Charleston and Norfolk, Va., and build a big, new campus in Charlotte. Parenti flew up to Providence to visit her friend, who made an excuse to bring her in the office and introduce her to Yena. It was nothing, she says – “a 10-minute meeting in a corridor.” Weeks later, she got a call: “‘Bernice – this is Jack from Providence.’ I had no idea who Jack from Providence even was.” He told her he needed somebody on the ground in Charlotte, “to be the face, to be the feet on the street. “I knew it was going to be exciting, something that would get me going. Up until then, I had jobs but nothing clicked. I was dancing on the ceiling.”
‘My life was topsy-turvy’
What Jack Yena got in Bernice Parenti was an organizer, a facilitator – and a bridge between Johnson & Wales’ culture of training and service and Charlotte’s culture of connections and networking. In her family, she says, “I was the planner.” She was always getting kids together and putting on parties. With so many family gatherings, she knew how to be welcoming and warm. And she knew how to get things done, a skill that was about to be very important. “It was crazy. From the minute they announced (the Charlotte campus), my life was topsy-turvy. We said yes to anything and everything. I dragged Frank to more black-tie events,” she says. “Our first office was my bedroom. I look back and it was a blur.” Every business wanted to be a part of the new Johnson & Wales campus, and they all had to go through Bernice. And there was only two years and four months to design, build and staff an entire campus. “It was like birthing a baby,” she says. “When I look back now – how did we think we were going to do that?”
Emphasis: community service
Right off the bat, they knew community service was going to be huge. Every Johnson & Wales student is required to serve a certain number of hours. Once things started to settle down, Parenti ended up taking the job of community liason. She had to meet with nonprofits all over the city and start forming partnerships that would meet Johnson & Wales’ priorities of working on hunger, homelessness and education. It’s not as simple as just sending a bunch of kids over to work. Students are graded on their service and they can’t graduate without it. So there’s a lot of responsibility for the programs that get volunteers. “They work hard to make sure our students succeed, to give them meaningful experiences.” Learning her way around the service programs gave Parenti a whole new view of Charlotte, she says. “I was ashamed of how ignorant I was of the need. You look at this city and it looks like everybody is doing well. Compared to cities in the Northeast, Charlotte looks like Oz. That level of poverty is hidden. That was the biggest eye-opener of my lifetime.” The other surprise, for Parenti and everyone else at Johnson & Wales, was Charlotte’s interest in them. The civic enthusiasm was relentless. There were constant calls, constant requests for tours. A lot of those ended up with Parenti. “They love us,” she says, laughing. “Being on the receiving end of that has been great.”
Everyone’s dying to cook at J&W
Over and over, people kept asking to take classes. It seemed that every person in town who liked to eat was dying to cook in the student kitchens at Johnson & Wales. The university never expected that. There were cooking classes for the public at their other campuses, but it was never that popular. The university started taking names for a mailing list in case they ever added classes, and quickly had 3,000 names. It was clear someone was going to have to tackle it. At a staff meeting, someone asked, “Who the heck is going to take that on?” Parenti remembers sitting there and thinking, “I could just keep my mouth shut.” But she figured it wouldn’t be a big deal. The enthusiasm almost knocked her down. First, they offered a few classes with mail-in registration. The classes were filled before they could open all the envelopes. They went to phone-in registration. They couldn’t answer the phones fast enough. Finally, she had to convince IT to build an online registration system to handle the demand. Parenti ran the program for four years before she finally begged university president Art Gallagher to assign it to someone else and let her focus on community service. That’s really where she has found her niche. On a couple floors of the main building, there are posters lining the walls with quotes from students about their community service experience. Parenti loves to walk along those halls and look at them. “When I read those, I know we’re making a difference in students’ lives. When they leave here, they’re not just great chefs and hotel managers. They’re good citizens.” From the outsider who wasn’t sure she would stay in Charlotte, Bernice Parenti has become the ultimate insider, the one who knows exactly where she’s supposed to be. “This is it for me, right here.”
RECIPE:Portuguese Chourico Sausage & Littleneck Clams
From Bernice Parenti of Johnson & Wales University, Charlotte. Growing up on Rhode Island, Parenti remembers going “clamming” with her dad and bringing home the catch for her mother to turn into something yummy. It can be served with crusty bread for a summer appetizer, or served over pasta as an entree.
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided 1 to 2 pounds Portuguese chourico sausage (see note), sliced slightly diagonally about 1/2 inch thick 2 to 3 onions, sliced 2 to 3 cloves garlic, chopped 2 to 3 bay leaves 1 to 2 teaspoons paprika 1/2 to 1 cup fresh parsley, chopped 1 to 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes, dry or wet 3/4 cup dry white wine (optional) 1 large can diced tomatoes 2 to 3 dozen littlenecks (small, hard-shell clams), well rinsed Crusty bread or hot, cooked pasta
Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the chourico and cook about 5 minutes. Add remaining olive oil, onion and garlic; continue cooking 2 to 3 minutes, stirring frequently so it doesn’t burn. Add the spices and wine and cook on high until it reduces to about half. Lower the heat and add tomatoes with their juice. Simmer, covered, about 20 minutes. Add the clams, cover and cook on medium-high heat about 8-10 minutes, until the clam shells open. Discard any unopened clams. Serve immediately with hot, crusty bread (to sop up the juices) or over any type of hot, cooked pasta.
Yield: 2 to 4 servings.
NOTE: Portuguese chourico sausage is not the same as the Spanish chorizo sausage. Chourico is available at Harris Teeter stores, and can be ordered online at www.gasparssausage.com.
NOTE: The ingredient amounts are all subject to taste. Add more or less, as desired!