Into frying pan: Kitchen class helps Valley immigrants advance - WITH VIDEO

  • Juan Guamarica, an immigrant from Ecuador now living in Northampton, prepares salmon. Holyoke Community College chef instructor Joshua Ogrodowski demonstrates how to cut a tomato. Immigrant students prepare a vegetarian lasagna. Sarah Crosby PHOTOS

  • Juan Guamarica, an immigrant from Ecuador now living in Northampton, left, and Wei Mazzi, an immigrant from China now living Northampton, prepare salmon April 21 during Bridges to Restaurant and Kitchen Skills, a partnership class between Center for New Americans and Holyoke Community College to familiarize immigrants with kitchen terminology in English. This class was held in Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School's kitchen laboratory at the Northampton school.

  • Baked salmon with lemon, ginger and scallion is shown April 21 during Bridges to Restaurant and Kitchen Skills, a partnership class between Center for New Americans and Holyoke Community College to familiarize immigrants with kitchen terminology in English. This class was held in Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School's kitchen laboratory at the Northampton school.

  • Deguan Deng, an immigrant from China now living in Westhampton, participates in the “Introduction to Restaurant and Kitchen Skills” partnership class between the Center for New Americans and Holyoke Community College. It was held Thursday in Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School's kitchen. SARAH CROSBY

  • Sukhonnan Kruawan, an immigrant from Thailand now living in Northampton, left, and Wei Mazzi, an immigrant from China now living Northampton, watch Holyoke Community College chef instructor Joshua Ogrodowski shape pizza dough April 21 during Bridges to Restaurant and Kitchen Skills, a partnership class between Center for New Americans and Holyoke Community College to familiarize immigrants with kitchen terminology in English. This class was held in Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School's kitchen laboratory at the Northampton school.

  • Holyoke Community College chef instructor Joshua Ogrodowski demonstrates how to cut a tomato April 21 during Bridges to Restaurant and Kitchen Skills, a partnership class between Center for New Americans and Holyoke Community College to familiarize immigrants with kitchen terminology in English. This class was held in Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School's kitchen laboratory at the Northampton school.

  • Wei Mazzi, an immigrant from China now living Northampton, left, Sukhonnan Kruawan, an immigrant from Thailand now living in Northampton, Anahit Grigyan, an immigrant from Armenia now living in Hadley, and Chankroeusna Kry, an immigrant from Cambodia now living in Easthampton, serve themselves April 21 during Bridges to Restaurant and Kitchen Skills, a partnership class between Center for New Americans and Holyoke Community College to familiarize immigrants with kitchen terminology in English. This class was held in Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School's kitchen laboratory at the Northampton school.

  • Abdessamad Ajgoune, left, and Omar Baloune, both immigrants from Morocco now living in Easthampton, put chopped vegetables in a vegetarian lasagna during Thursday’s “Introduction to Restaurant and Kitchen Skills” class at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School in Northampton. SARAH CROSBY

@DHGCrosby
Published: 4/26/2016 3:58:48 PM

The coach watching Abdessamad Ajgoune construct a staple of the Italian-American diet reminded him that when making lasagna, things must add up. He’d need to pile on another layer of pasta and sauce. 

Ajgoune grinned. “Oh,” he said. “Two floors.” He nodded and heaped on more ingredients.

On Thursday, Ajgoune, an immigrant from Morocco, joined forces around a table with eight others to create a meal to cap a short class that was as much about language as food. “Introduction to Restaurant and Kitchen Skills” was offered April 11 to 21 by the Center for New Americans.

Food is a universal language that connects people around the globe. But when you don’t know the English words for what’s headed for plates, that bond can be difficult — at work or home.

The introductory class helped immigrants living in western Massachusetts bridge that gap by combining English classes with food-preparation skills.

The class gives students a chance to learn vocabulary for skills they may already know. Two similarly styled classes were offered this year — “Bridges to Healthcare Jobs” and “Education & Career Exploration.”

“We wanted to address whatever was getting in the way of our students becoming successful in a field,” said Peg Johnson, interim coordinator of the English for speakers of other languages program at the center. For many, that barrier is communication.

The first-time restaurant skills class was offered free of charge through the center’s implementation of Career Pathways, a yearly $50,000 program funded by a grant through the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Franklin Hampshire Regional Employment Board.

The $50,000 is used to leverage additional funding from local government and business supporters. Holyoke Community College partnered with the center to form the curriculum and familiarize students with training and educational opportunities available in western Massachusetts.

“This is actually the future,” Laurie Millman, the center’s executive director, said of community workforce training partnerships. Greenfield Community College has also collaborated with the center on classes.

Regional employment boards work with employers, Millman said, to identify growing industries and the skills job candidates need. They then steer grant money to training.

“They have an eye toward making the U.S. more economically competitive by fine-tuning the educational pathways by which people can fill jobs that pay a living wage,” said Millman.

Many of the center’s immigrant students begin their American lives working in kitchens.

“It’s often the first job they can get here,” Johnson said. “Most people can learn to chop vegetables and don’t need a ton of English.”

Several former students at the center have opened their own restaurants in the Pioneer Valley, but for some, the work is an entry point to a different career. Five out of the nine class attendees raised their hands Thursday to indicate prior or current employment in the restaurant industry. But Johnson said some need to improve their English vocabulary skills before they can move into “front-of-the-house” jobs.

Talking the talk

Ajgoune, who lives in Easthampton, works as a dishwasher but dreams of being a mechanical engineer.

“I like cooking,” he said, “but cooking in the U.S. is longer, harder work.”

Ajgoune, who immigrated in January, said in Morocco he cooked meals in about 10 minutes using a Dutch oven. He signed up for the class to continue learning English words to use in the kitchen at his current job. He and the others were coached by center instructor Linda Neas.

Joshua Ogrodowski, who is a chef instructor for HCC’s workforce development programs, taught Thursday’s knife skills and food preparation segment in the teaching kitchen at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School.

The nine students scurried throughout the kitchen cooking as smells of baked salmon with lemon, ginger and scallions, stuffed portobello mushroom, from-scratch cheese pizza, potato lyonnaise and vegetarian lasagna wafted through the halls.

“Hopefully this experience will inspire them,” Ogrodowski said of class participants. “Even if it’s not in a commercial kitchen, I hope these are skills they’ll take home.”

Wei Mazzi, an immigrant from China living in Northampton, plans to do just that.

“I cook very easy food for myself and my husband at home,” said Mazzi, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1998. “The ingredients here are familiar, but I don’t know all the words.”

Mazzi said with the help of her American husband, she is usually able to locate the items she needs. Ogrodowski worked with Mazzi to make fresh pizza dough during the class.

“I make dough for a lot of things, but (it’s) different,” Mazzi said. “Now I can try to make pizza at home.

“I really enjoy this class,” she added later. “I’m learning everything.”

While Johnson said some of the students are likely to employ their new skills in the kitchen, the class goal is to expose immigrants to options available to them outside of the English classroom.

“In a new country, educational systems are different. We give them the knowledge that they need to move to the next step,” she said, adding that the class covered topics ranging from kitchen-targeted vocabulary and math to how to take a multiple-choice test — something crucial for many food certifications and education in general.

HCC involvement

Wheels began to turn on forming the class in 2015 when Kermit Dunkelberg, assistant vice president of adult basic education and workforce development at Holyoke Community College, reached out to the center about a partnership.

“As a college, we are really invested in creating opportunities for people who traditionally have not had access to these careers,” he said.

HCC offers a variety of state grant-funded, non-credit training opportunities to help people prepare for entry-level positions in restaurant and hospitality businesses. The short classes also serve to promote college readiness.

“On the one hand,” said Dunkelberg, “we’re gaining by serving the needs of local employers. We’re also serving the needs of individuals who need access to these careers, so everyone wins in this equation. The more people with jobs, the better economic prosperity of the region.”

Johnson said the restaurant and kitchen skills class is in line with the idea of “stackable credentialing” — a lasagna-like layering of educational experiences that helps pave the way toward better employment.

“Having industry-specific vocabulary gives them a little bit of an edge, a little bit of an leg up,” she said. “It may not happen tomorrow, but they will work hard to make their dreams come true.”

Sarah Crosby can be reached at scrosby@gazettenet.com.


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