South Charlotte

Community Culinary School thrives in new space

Chef George DiPaolo made tomato-basil tarts in the kitchen of Community Culinary School of Charlotte last December.
Chef George DiPaolo made tomato-basil tarts in the kitchen of Community Culinary School of Charlotte last December. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

After 17 years in South End, the Community Culinary School of Charlotte (CCSC) has moved across town and found a home in the southeast part of the city.

In February, executive director Ron Ahlert relocated the school, a nonprofit organization that provides workforce training and job placement for adults facing barriers to long-term employment, to Greylyn Business Park on Monroe Road.

The school had shared kitchen space with another non-profit for years. Now, it has its own large kitchen outfitted with new Electrolux appliances.

“The Monroe Road corridor and Greylyn Business Park have embraced us,” Ahlert said. “I thought we would have an issue getting students, but we’re having more students apply than we can handle.”

CCSC’s Class 52, which has 16 students, is set to graduate from the 14-week program in December. The Monroe Road location has allowed Ahlert to increase his class sizes and his staff from “one and a half” chefs to four full-time chefs. He also has added a full-time counselor and a café in the front of the space that’s open from 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday.

“We’ve never had our own facility, and we’ve never been able to control our own daily destiny,” Ahlert said.

The expanded cooking program rotates students between three stations. They learn how to bake from scratch with chef Rick Dudley, how to prepare food for soups, stocks and sauces along with catering prep with chef George DiPaolo and how to cook for the café, which offers breakfast, lunch and baked goods and pastries, with chef Geoff Bragg.

The school does not charge tuition, although Ahlert said it costs about $4,400 for each student to complete the program.

The school is supported through its café, its Encore Catering company, fundraisers and private and community donations. CCSC partners with companies and restaurants such as Chef Charles Catering, Cowbell, the Ritz-Carlton, Southminster and Zebra, which regularly use the school’s students to help with events.

Students attend the school from 8 a.m.-3 p.m. on weekdays. On a recent workday, they were preparing roasted vegetable quesadillas, a hot-water crust quiche with feta, spinach and caramelized onions, and cheddar pecan wafers.

The school’s dishes use a lot of local produce, including vegetables donated from church gardens.

All of the chefs on staff have accomplished careers, and they say they say they like passing on their skills to CCSC students.

“I knew chef Ron, and I was a fan of the work he was doing,” DiPaolo said. “I jumped at the opportunity to come here and work. We’re giving back to the community, and it’s the first time I’ve been able to do that in this business.”

Ahlert describes the program’s goal as “legacy recreation.”

Many students have struggled with issues such as incarceration or addiction or post traumatic stress disorder in the past, and Ahlert aims to teach them a wide range of culinary skills and help them find jobs paying at least $12 an hour.

“We are taking folks who want to transition from one economic level to another,” Ahlert said. “These are folks who are really trying to make that change.”

About 85 percent of the school’s students secure work before graduating, and alumni have jobs at restaurants such as Cowfish and Zebra.

We’ve never had our own facility, and we’ve never been able to control our own daily destiny.

Ron Ahlert, executive director of Community Culinary School of Charlotte

Along with culinary instruction, the school also hosts job and life skills workshops. Counselor Victor Ward operates the school’s Relapse Prevention Service and is onsite daily to meet with students. His office, he said, “is literally in the kitchen.”

“We all deal with trauma in some form,” Ward said. “Our students haven’t had that person they can talk to about it.”

He helps students with everything from mental challenges to legal issues.

Students receive at least 300 hours of culinary training over the course of the program, and most find a new hope for their future and potentially higher-paying jobs.

Brett Edwards, 45, learned about CCSC from a friend. He has worked for $7.50 an hour at Compare Foods, and now he is hoping to find a job cooking for a school.

He said he fell into a “comfort zone” at Compare Foods, and CCSC is helping him get more prepared and “get myself together.”

Student Sonya Williams, 35, also described her job – working with children and adults with autism and mental illnesses – as a “comfort zone.” She drove by the cooking school almost every day picking up clients, but she had never noticed it until she stopped in to see if they offered cake-decorating classes.

Now, she hopes to eventually open her own catering company.

“I was settled in what I was doing, but this is my passion and my dream,” Williams said. “I was scared to step out, but I think that’s one of the best decisions I’ve made as an adult.”

Marty Minchin is a freelance writer: martyminchin@gmail.com.

Learn more:

For information about the Community Culinary School of Charlotte, including its upcoming “Miracle on Monroe” fundraising event on Dec. 8, visit http://communityculinary.org.

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