Japanese fare is on the menu at the Courtyard Café in Northeast Portland.
Young chefs in white coats and black aprons hustle around the large commercial kitchen. At a stainless-steel table, there’s one slicing beef for skewers while another chops garlic. Opposite him, another cook minces scallions to put in pot stickers. Around the corner, three others are prepping ingredients for sushi, scraping seeds out of sliced cucumbers and scrambling eggs on the stove while waiting for the rice to finish steaming.
Tonight’s chefs are part of Multnomah County’s Culinary Arts Youth Program, a yearlong class offered to youth ages 14 to 18 who’ve landed in the criminal justice system.
“They could be in foster care, or they’ve committed some crime, but they’re not currently incarcerated,” says Kim Pidcoke, culinary arts instructor. “This is an entirely voluntary program, so they are choosing to be here.”
Classes are held from 4-7 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays during the school year in the commercial kitchen of the Donald E. Long Juvenile Justice Complex.
It’s based on the Prostart Program, a high-school course developed by the National Restaurant Association. Students can translate hours into credits toward their high school diploma or to Mount Hood Community College’s Hospitality and Tourism Program.
“We focus a lot on practical skills,” says Pidcoke, “so they are learning knife skills and basic sauces and kitchen techniques.”
At the start of a recent class, six students gather around a table in the café and practice their chopstick skills with bowls of steamed edamame as Pidcoke quizzes them on some of the Mediterranean food they cooked last week and goes over some of the staples of Japanese cuisine. She explains what they’ll be making and hands out recipes. Some of the students pair up, depending on the dish they’ll make, and they all head into the kitchen.
Each student is focused on their task. Rebekah, 17, makes sushi. This is her second year in the program. “I just wanted to be able to make different types of food that I wouldn’t be regularly able to do at my house,” she explains.
Last summer, she interned in the café, and forged relationships with some of the kitchen staff. “Once I started working in the kitchen, you can tell that they actually care about the kids that are here,” she says. “It’s just nice to have people care about you, and want to help.”
Pidcoke arranges eight-week internships for motivated students, paid by the county, either in the café or at restaurants and food-services operations around town. Placements have included Two Tarts Bakery, Sina Baking and Ovations Food Services.
Last year, an internship at Noble Rot turned into a part-time job for one student — the first time that’s happened in the program’s five-year history, according to Pidcoke.
“My goal is to get them job-ready so that they get used to arriving on time every time, and to have professional behavior,” says Pidcoke. “Even though they’re among teenagers, I want them to treat each other like this is an actual work site.”
At the end of class, the students finish their dishes, clean their stations and head into the café to taste their creations. Pidcoke asks each to explain what they made.
Rebekah says making her egg, cucumber and crab sushi was more difficult than she thought, adding, “I thought it’d be pretty easy, but — surprise! — you need to learn a technique to doing it.”
Rebekah hopes to score another summer internship in a kitchen somewhere. She says that she’s not sure she eventually wants a job in food service, but that she’s grown by being in the class.
“It’s definitely taught me how to work well with other people, how to work in a team setting, and getting along with different people,” she says. “Yeah, it’s helped me a lot.”