Low-income Delawareans get a chance to step up to the plate

January 21, 2014

Culinary education ain’t cheap. Tuition costs can run from the mid-teens up to $50,000 or more, and that doesn’t include travel and conveniences like room, board and the occasional meal consisting of something other than the mid-term exam. Successful chefs are proud of their credentials, and I’ve written more than once about our local restaurateurs who sing the praises of Johnson & Wales University, the Culinary Institute of America, The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College and the French Culinary Institute, just to name a few.

But circumstances such as poverty or special needs can interfere with the dreams of kids - and adults - who might otherwise excel in the art (and science) of restauranting, and that’s where First State Community Action Agency comes in. In what Business Relations Coordinator Joann Kirwan calls Delaware’s best-kept secret, the nonprofit FSCAA provides free training in the culinary arts to anybody who truly desires a career in food service. This is not a cooking demonstration or a Suzie Homemaker sauce and gravy brush-up. This is a certified culinary program taught from professionally accepted textbooks and conducted by none other than Chef Gary Papp of Essential Chef Catering. Local foodies will remember Gary and his wife Lorraine (pastry chef extraordinaire) as the opening chefs at the original Buttery restaurant when it was located in what is now the Hotel Rodney in Lewes.

The classes are funded by private donations and grants from various organizations, including the U.S. Department of Labor and Department of Agriculture. Restaurant partners such as Bonz at Harrington Raceway, Irish Eyes, Baywood Greens, The Brick Hotel, Applebee’s, Matt Haley’s SoDel Concepts and even Nanticoke Memorial Hospital kick in to provide internships. Students show up on the job with Delaware’s mandatory alcohol server training certification and the equally important ServSafe food sanitation certificate.

The program is offered on two levels. The first is specifically for ninth- to 12th-graders with special needs. These kids must be motivated to see the program through, as the training extends over four years. Adult classes are offered twice a year and provide 365 hours of classroom and hands-on instruction, 40 hours of job shadowing and a 40-hour paid (by FSCAA) internship. Obviously the goal is for the internship sites to keep these graduates on as employees. The student must provide proof of citizenship and Delaware residency, transportation and a strong desire to turn the taxpayers’ investment into full-time, gainful employment.

The restaurants themselves are fertile ground for finding qualified candidates, since the potential student is already employed. More than once, an entry-level kitchen employee has been encouraged to participate in this program in order to advance from the dishwashing station to line cook and … who knows, maybe even to sous chef or chef. The possibilities are endless, but the reality is that once all the grants are granted, textbooks are studied and jobs are shadowed, the ultimate responsibility lies squarely with the student. All the training in the world can’t make anybody do anything they’re not motivated to do, so Executive Director Bernice Edwards, Program Manager MaryAnn Morris, Job Developer Patti Miller, Joann Kirwan and all the other dedicated people at First State Community Action Agency are always on the lookout for enthusiastic applicants who will make them proud by following through to successful, full-time employment.

Of course, FSCAA isn’t just about teaching people how to cook. While most poverty-related organizations focus on a specific area of need, Community Action agencies reach out to low-income people to address multiple needs, partnering with allied organizations and local businesses to administer a full range of programs they hope will have a measurable impact on poverty.

The agency’s motto is, “Empowering people, changing lives.” Sound interesting? Empower yourself or somebody you know by getting more information about Delaware’s free Culinary Arts Training Program. Call 302-856-7761, Ext. 139 to take the first step toward changing your life or the life of somebody close to you with a fulfilling career in the food industry.

  • So many restaurants, so little time! Food writer Bob Yesbek gives readers a sneak peek behind the scenes, exposing the inner workings of the local culinary industry, from the farm to the table and everything in between. He can be reached at

    Masthead photo by Grant Gursky. Used with permission from Coastal Style Magazine.

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