The aspiring cooks wanted a recipe for success.
A woman whipped up rich cream for tiramisu. Another chopped corn for soup while others prepared chicken parmesan as fragrant smells filled the air.
What made this industrial kitchen unusual were the people, all of whom are aspiring to learn new skills and change the trajectory of their lives.
The students are spending three months discovering how to cook Italian or French or Caribbean-inspired cuisine at the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida. But they also practice job interviews, update their resumes and learn how to budget their money.
“People need a hand-up — not a handout,” said Idalia Nuñez, a life skills education manager at the food bank.
The program, which is funded by donations and grants, is free to participants. Recently, the American Hotel and Lodging Association gave $25,000 to the program, which costs about $5,000 per student.
“They can literally graduate and start working at the hotel the next day and be ready,” said Shelly Weir, a senior vice president at the American Hotel and Lodging Educational Foundation.
On Wednesday, Danielle Pool was in class expertly cutting sweet corn for her twist on gazpacho.
The cold soup had a strong hint of onion, so it still wasn’t quite right.
“Work the corn,” said Chef Israel Santiago, who had cooked at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort and later opened Bongos Cuban Cafe in Disney Springs, in a booming voice that still sounded encouraging.
“I’m looking for sweetness. If you can’t find it, use honey.”
Pool, 31, kept working.
She posts pictures of her work, like decadent flan drizzled in caramel, on Facebook. One day, she made bagels with cured salmon, cream cheese and other toppings that were so good that she ate four.
The new experience in this kitchen has helped her sets new career goals.
“I want to save the world through food,” said Pool, who envisions a career that invokes healthy cooking, teaching others and possibly working on the supplier side. First off, though, she plans to pursue a degree at Valencia College and save enough money to move out of the shelter the single mother lives in with her children.
Darlene Madison, a 39-year-old single mother of three kids, said she learned how to not only make sushi but give an elevator pitch to network for a job.
“I love it,” she said.
Already, 285 graduates have gone through the program over the past six years. Some have opened catering businesses or landed jobs cooking for tourists at restaurants at the Disney and Universal parks or on International Drive.
All of them leave with some sort of a job, school officials said.
“We don’t let them leave here until they have a full-time job,” said Chef Eric Andre, who teaches the class with Santiago.
In Orlando, the economy is booming within the hospitality and tourism industry as new hotels and restaurants open and millions of tourists visit every year. But it’s also an industry where wages have been largely stagnant.
But that could be changing. Walt Disney World and its largest union have reached an agreement to raise the hourly minimum pay to $15 by October 2021. Experts say they believe the increase will impact other businesses and force them to compete. Universal Orlando already followed by hiking pay to $12 an hour in February.
Second Harvest officials said their program gives students industry certification that can command more pay. Weir also said hotels are becoming more creative and offering better benefits, like paying for their employees’ college education, to retain workers.
“It’s a tough job,” Santiago said. “You have to be dedicated.’’