Three years after it began, ChefsGO boasts an 82 percent retention rate. Dr. Susan English, Vice President of Academic Affairs and Workforce Development at Thomas Nelson, revealed one explanation in her address to the Class of 2019 at a graduation ceremony Aug. 15.
“This program represents all that Thomas Nelson strives to do in all of our technical programs,” she told the eight graduates, their families and friends gathered at WindsorMeade in Williamsburg.
On the College’s website, ChefsGO is described as “a culinary kickstart certificate program.” It consists of classroom instruction, kitchen training and a paid mentorship with a local restaurant. The next session begins in February 2020, but the first of three information sessions, held at Thomas Nelson’s Workforce Center on Ironbound Road in Williamsburg, is scheduled for Sept. 10. The other information sessions, which last about 90 minutes, are Oct. 2 and Oct. 24. (Registration opened in July.) Interviews will be held in mid-November, with classes beginning Feb. 17. The class is limited to 15 students.
“Ultimately, it’s been very successful, I think, for both the students and the chefs,” said Allison Patterson, one of two program coordinators. “As Susan said, it’s become the model by which we look at all Workforce programs.”
In total, 27 of the 33 students who have entered the program have graduated. The first graduation class, in 2017, featured six graduates. There were 13 in 2018 and eight this year. Of the 19 graduates in 2017 and ’18, only two are no longer in the field, according to Robin Carson, the other program coordinator. She said the rest are either working in the area or attending other universities, including the Culinary Institute of America, Mississippi State and Liberty.
Carson said there are multiple possible outcomes for the students: they continue to work in the field; they seek further education in the culinary arts; or they decide the kitchen is not for them and pursue other avenues.
“All three are very acceptable outcomes,” Carson said at the ceremony, adding the final outcome ensures that people don’t work in the restaurant business for a just a few weeks and then quit.
While the first information session will be held this month, classroom instruction doesn’t start until February 2020. That will last 13 weeks, and students will learn kitchen skills as well as from a textbook. They follow that with a 15-week paid mentorship at an area restaurant, allowing the students to put their skills to work. The restaurants involved in the program are Waypoint Seafood and Grill; The Trellis, Blue Talon Bistro, Culture Café, The Hound’s Tale, Williamsburg Inn, Kingsmill Resort, WindsorMeade, and Colonial Williamsburg.
As with many young programs, there are changes from year to year. ChefsGO is no exception. In the first year of the program, the classroom instruction was nine weeks, not including the mentorship. In 2018 and ’19, it was 11 weeks. The two extra weeks for next year, said Patterson, will be sponsored by the Peninsula Regional Education Program. It will cover, among other things, learning CPR and getting accustomed to the textbook, which Patterson said is written more from a culinary standpoint.
“The foundation of the course is staying the same,” Patterson said. “We’re just adding some prep time to better prepare the students because it’s intensive.”
Patterson, who joined the program at the end of the first year, said that initial class was given a lot of demonstrations and not much hands-on experience. That, too, has changed. Because of sponsorship, all students now have pots, pans, cutting boards and their own work stations.
“That was a game-changer for the whole program,” Patterson said. “Instead of just watching the chefs do what they do, it’s ‘Here, let me show you. Now you try.’ It’s more of an application.
“We’re preparing them to be more active in their mentorship.”
For the mentorships, each student is paired with a renowned, professionally-trained area chef, expected to work 30-40 hours a week. The goal is not to make them into executive chefs in that time, but prepare them for a career in the food industry.
“The point of the whole program (is) to get bodies into these restaurants,” Patterson said.
The classroom and lab training are held at the Williamsburg Workforce Center and Warhill High School. Scholarships and other financial assistance are available for qualified candidates. For more information, call the Virginia Career Works office in Hampton at (757) 865-5800.
For more information on the program, contact Allison Patterson at Pattersona@tncc.edu.