If your only culinary experience involves watching TV food shows, you might think cooking is always creative, glamorous work — developing recipes, designing meals, living the life of a celebrity chef.
But if you work in the restaurant industry, your reality may be quite different: long hours, repetitive tasks, low pay, high stress.
“Because of the Cooking Channel and all the cooking shows, folks have an idealistic view of what it’s like to work in a kitchen,” said Andrew Schiff, chief executive of the Rhode Island Community Food Bank. “But the environment is harsh, and it particularly tests people who don’t have a long history of work.”
That very demographic — unemployed and underemployed adults — is who the food bank’s Community Kitchen culinary job training program, and a similar program in Boston, aim to assist.
The free, full-time, 14-week course in Providence teaches basic cooking skills, from making sauces to slicing onions, to help graduates land entry-level jobs in the food business. It also offers food-safety training and simple life skills, like how to create a resume. And it emphasizes to students that their first position will probably be at the bottom of the industry ladder.
“They’re told over and over that when it’s time for them to graduate they’re not going to be a sous chef at a fancy restaurant,” Schiff said. “The job they’re going to get is going to be a very basic job, like chopping carrots in a nursing home cafeteria at 5 a.m., because somebody needs to chop the carrots.”
Still, he added, “If you do that consistently, and the manager and chef see that you’re there every day, you will advance — and that’s been our experience with our students.”
Indeed, the food bank says more than 90 percent of its 505 Community Kitchen graduates have landed jobs within three months, often at restaurants, banquet halls, and institutional kitchens.
Demand for the program is high: Each course has slots for 13 students, and more than 200 people applied in the last round. To make sure applicants are committed, they’re required to spend a day in the food bank’s kitchen before being accepted.
The program has another benefit: The meals that participants make are delivered to students at after-school programs and community centers.
Meghan Colannino, 27, of North Providence, took the course last fall after deciding she wanted a career that involved working with food. Two days after graduating, she became a prep cook at Gillette Stadium.
“My goal is to open a nonprofit café, so I need real-life experience if I’m ever going to be in charge of my own kitchen,” Colannino said, “and you’ve got to start somewhere.”
A similar free program is offered by the Salvation Army Kroc Corps Community Center in Boston’s Uphams Corner neighborhood. Its 10-week Culinary Arts Training Program is held three times a year for five days a week, five hours a day. It teaches food terminology, knife skills, and kitchen safety, among other basics.
“We don’t claim to be training chefs,” said Salvation Army spokesman Drew Forster. “What we’re looking to do is put someone into a better position to get an entry-level job in a restaurant kitchen.”
Since the program began last year, 72 people have graduated from it, and about 85 percent of them are employed in the industry, he said. Through a partnership with TD Garden, several graduates work at the arena’s concession stands and kitchens.
The students also prepare the food for their own graduation ceremony, “so when you’re attending,” Forster said, “you are literally tasting the proof of what they’ve learned.”