I recently had the opportunity to have lunch at Cincinnati COOKS!, a kitchen in an old building on Ezzard Charles Drive across from a vacant lot. No, it’s not the scene you get at most restaurants in Cincinnati, but this building has a thousand times more soul and spirit than all of them put together.
If you’ve ever seen The Chef Jeff Project on The Food Network, then you have an idea of how Cincinnati COOKS! works. If you’re not familiar with Chef Jeff, it goes something like this: Ex-convict Jeff Henderson, now a top chef in Los Angeles, trains six young men and women off the streets — some former drug addicts, some homeless — to cook, awarding each of them scholarships to culinary institutes at the end. If Extreme Home Makeover leaves you teary eyed, Chef Jeff might leave you incapacitated.
Cincinnati COOKS! is right up there with the aforementioned reality show, except that it’s real — no glam, no cameras. It does, however, have its share of drama.
In this reality, Dennis Coskie, a real-life chef with a twinkle in his eye (and who's not an ex-convict), is your Jeff Henderson with just as much, if not more, compassion. Like Henderson, Coskie and his staff — Fernando Scarbriel, Jeffrey Pitts and Kim Williams — aren't messing around.
At the end, these graduates don’t get scholarships like they do on the TV show. They get jobs. Some end up making up to $18 an hour; others make closer to $9. In fact, 75 percent land jobs within 60 days of graduation. The rest take a bit longer.
What brings everyone together is a common mission, Coskie says: to not only create better lives for themselves but to feed the kids. In some Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky schools, 85 percent of students participate in the national free or reduced-cost breakfast and school lunch program, according to Ohio and Kentucky Department of Education data. Of these, there’s a chance that as many as 10 percent might have little or no food when they return home. Imagine trying to do your math homework on an empty stomach, and you get a tiny fraction of the picture.
On the day I had lunch with Coskie and Development Officer Kathy Greenberg, we had a chance to try COOKS! food that goes to Kids Café, the largest meal program in the country for hungry kids (see Kevin Osborne's related feature story on Freestore/Foodbank). Coskie’s chefs-in-training make 800 of these meals a day. I have to say that no school or college cafeteria I’ve ever eaten at — well, except maybe Antioch College’s — could compete with this spread. I enjoyed my lunch there, even eating pepperoni for the first time in 10 years. We had quite a few options to choose from, including crisp salads with fresh veggies, rich beef stew and ratatouille with Parmesan.
As we ate, Coskie discussed how close the Cincinnati COOKS! students had become to one another, creating a community and long-term friendships, baby-sitting each others’ kids and, in general, taking care of one another.
“At graduation, we give each of them a chef’s uniform and a set of knives,” he says. “It’s more symbolic than anything,” though he adds that many of his students do go on to culinary school.
“If you come to our graduation this Friday, be sure to bring a box of tissues,” Greenberg says. “I tell everyone that. You will need them.”
To donate to or volunteer with Cincinnati COOKS!, call 513-482-7543.