Feed Me Hope culinary school teaches skills for life beyond the kitchen

Julia Moore displays her tray of apple crumble at the Feed Me Hope Culinary School in downtown Anchorage. (Hillman/Alaska Public Media)

A new culinary school that teaches more than the difference between saute and simmer opened in Anchorage last fall to provide classes for people who are homeless or are leaving prison. Instructors at Feed Me Hope go beyond teaching cooking skills to teach life skills.

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Julia Moore walked through the kitchen at the Hope Center Downtown Soup Kitchen in Anchorage pointing out the vegetable prep area and giant freezers. Then she remembered something more important.

“Oh, let’s go check my dessert! I forgot my dessert’s in the oven!” she said, rushing past her fellow students.

“Smell that!” she exclaimed as the sweet scent of cinnamon and baked apples wafted from the giant metal tray of apple crumble.

Moore said loves baking desserts because unlike vegetables, they make people the happiest.

“I can’t get excited about cutting up yams,” she laughed.

Moore is midway through the 12-week long culinary program at the Soup Kitchen. She joined the school because the conditions of her release from prison into a halfway house required that she get a job, and she wasn’t having any luck.

“I was applying everywhere and nobody was interested,” she said. “I have a lot of tattoos. I’m older. I haven’t been employed in over 10 years.”

Now, every morning she joins 10 other students for training that applies to jobs inside and outside the kitchen. For the first half of the day they take life skills classes. Then, in the afternoon, they learn to cook. Everything the students prepare is served for dinner to the 50 women who sleep at the Hope Center, which is a soup kitchen by day and an emergency shelter at night. The program is privately funded through donations and catering sales.

Chef David Sorensen teaches the cooking classes. He said the skills he imparts, like how to hold a knife or to make vinaigrette, are important but won’t necessarily help his students keep a job. First, they need to learn to deal with their inner gremlins.

He said some people have voices in their head saying they aren’t good enough and can’t succeed. “If we can’t get them to a point where they can overcome those voices, they won’t be gainfully employed and that’s the reason they are here.”

So while he teaches them to dice peppers, he also talks about his life and checks in on how the students are doing outside of class.

Sorensen said he’s been where many of his students have – he’s in recovery from alcohol addiction and was homeless when he was young.

“In the past if somebody had said, ‘Hey, I’ve got a culinary job for you as a teacher,’ I would have not lasted two months. I would have just chucked in it all in and said I can’t do this because I would have still been not sober.”

Julia Moore makes a vat of vinaigrette at the Feed Me Hope Culinary School in downtown Anchorage. (Hillman/Alaska Public Media)

Sobriety is one of the program requirements. Students undergo random drug tests and are asked to use a breathalyzer if program staff suspect they are drinking. Sorensen said people who are caught using will get another shot at staying in the program, but they have to agree to stop using substances.

Feed Me Hope is modeled after FareStart in Seattle, which has run a culinary and life skills program for 30 years. Ninety percent of their adult graduates get jobs within 3 months of finishing the program.

So far, three people have graduated from Feed Me Hope in Anchorage. Eleven more are on track to finish in late spring, and Moore is one of them. She said she doesn’t plan on getting a culinary job when she finishes, but she’s definitely learned some things that will help her in life.

“I don’t work well with others,” she said. “I do better by myself. That’s why I’m an artist. But I’m getting used to working with people, which is a good thing. People are okay I guess.”

She laughed then pulled her dessert out of the oven, the edges brown and bubbly. She headed into the walk-in refrigerator to make the final preparations for the night’s meal.