From life on the streets to marbled floors: An unusual culinary program offers a way forward
To the cynical, the Encore casino opening in Everett later this month promises to be a beacon for bettors ready to be separated from their cash.
But for Josephine Cuzzi’s clients, the casino represents something else: a rare opportunity to change their lives.
Cuzzi runs perhaps the city’s most unusual culinary arts program. The New England Center for Arts and Technology, known as NECAT, takes people who have struggled with a host of challenges and helps to launch careers in the food-service industry. Now about three dozen of them are preparing to work at the posh new casino on the Mystic River, with some of them being just months removed from chronic unemployment.
NECAT is part cooking school, part reentry program. Its students range from their early 20s to their 50s. What they share is a desire to stabilize their lives.
Cuzzi, a former Massport official who has found a second career in human services, is sympathetic but direct in describing the difficulties her students are facing.
‘They’ve never been on a career path,” Cuzzi said in a recent interview. “Right now nearly half of our population are either in recent reentry — within the last six months — have [criminal records] in their background, have been in substance abuse recovery programs, are homeless,” Cuzzi said. “Or all of the above.”
Almost none of the students — roughly 150 a year — have any restaurant background to speak of. They find their way to the five-year-old program, which is based in a nondescript building a few hundred feet from the South Bay House of Corrections, mostly through word-of-mouth. They enter via referrals from probation officers, family members, other social agencies.
Once there, they start a 16-week program that focuses nearly as much on basic life skills as culinary training.
“They learn basic techniques,” Cuzzi said. “They learn the importance of getting résumés together. We do as much life training as job training: why it’s important to show up on time, conflict-resolution skills, a huge emphasis on what’s now known as social and emotional learning for adults. That’s what they lack the most. There’s reasons why they’ve been chronically unemployed.”
Cuzzi targeted the casino as a prime job supplier shortly after Wynn Resorts was selected to operate the casino.
She found a willing partner: As a condition of receiving its casino license, the company had agreed to invest in the surrounding community. So the Las Vegas bigshots agreed to fund a NECAT branch program in Everett. They’ve held fund-raisers for the program. Now, graduates of the program are being hired to fill entry-level jobs in the casino’s multiple restaurants.
“After learning and hearing of the success they had and being able to place people in jobs no matter what their background or previous experience, it was something I felt pretty passionate about,” said Joe Leibowitz, the corporate executive chef for Encore.
Michael Sheppard had never considered working in a casino until landing a job at Encore. But then, until recently he hadn’t planned on becoming a cook at all. At 24, he was cycling through temporary jobs and wondering what to do with himself when a relative who knew he liked to cook suggested a training program he should look into.
“I was at a point where I didn’t really know what direction I was going in,” Sheppard said. “I didn’t really have a passion. I was just being with my friends and enjoying my life.” Slowly, he says, he realized he needed a career path. Sheppard said he’s found that, and more, in the training program.
“Everybody comes from different backgrounds and has different stories, and it’s crazy how we come into this environment and have the same goal,” he said. “I learn something new here every day.”
Sheppard started his new life last week.