Inspiration under the L

August 16, 2011
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After losing her job at The Art Institute of Chicago almost three years ago, Valerie Wilmington started fostering children, but she still missed working.

“If you’ve worked all your life, you need to feel productive,” she said.

As she sought work, she said her biggest obstacle was her age: “Surely, I could find a waitress job . . . but jobs are hard no matter what walk of life you’re in. Let’s face it, I’m not for society quite hirable. They rather have a young waitress.”

A long job search finally ended when she was hired at Inspiration Kitchens in Garfield Park.

“They took a chance. They didn’t ask your color. They didn’t ask your age. They didn’t ask anything,” she said.

The restaurant at 3405 W. Lake St. is the newest addition for the Inspiration Corp., which was founded by Lisa Nigro over 20 years ago in the Uptown neighborhood to help people struggling with homelessness.

The 80-seat restaurant, which opened in May, serves as a second on-site culinary training program for community members looking to re-enter the workforce.

Wilmington says having the restaurant in the area brings something special for those who are “the working poor.”  The diversity among those who dine at the Kitchen and come through the program “makes for beautiful living,” she said.

Although she doesn’t receive tips because patrons are asked to make a donation, Wilmington said it’s better.

“The concept is just awesome,” said Wilmington. “Just to know that you’re working for a place, for lack of a better word, paying it forward. It’s helping so many, so many people.”

Avil Greenberg joined Inspiration Kitchens as general manager in December. With years of experience in the restaurant industry and her community health background, Greenberg says it’s the perfect position for her.

“I get to do something really meaningful in my life,” she said. “And run a restaurant with great people.”

Greenberg said a majority of the program’s participants have “barriers to employment” and suffered setbacks.

Participants receive 13 weeks of intensive job skill training. At the Uptown location, trainees have four weeks of training and an internship. At Garfield Park, from Day One, trainees are started in the kitchen. They also learn basic job skills, such as writing resumes, conflict resolution and team work.

Applicants should have a desire and passion to be in the culinary field, but the program accepts those who seek to be a part of the workforce and want to change their lives, said Greenberg.

The initial application process requires applicants to meet with a case manager to assess if they can handle the intensive program and if there are any barriers to finishing. They are also given a simple math test.

“We don’t like people starting and not having them feel great because there are so many things going on in their life that they can’t finish,” said Greenberg. “We want people to succeed.”

The program has partnered with several area organizations, including Bethel New Life and Al Raby School for Community and Environment. Inspiration offers a guest certificate program through which partner organizations can hand out guest cards for a free meal to families in need.

“That’s a way to get people who couldn’t afford to come in, to come in,” said Greenberg.

Next to the Green line Central Park stop, diners can enjoy familiar sides such as fried green tomatoes to dinner entrees, including Oxtail empanadas with a romesco sauce.

Executive chef David Rosenthall said as he created the menu, he kept in mind that Garfield Park is a food desert, so he wanted to strike a balance between the familiar while not competing with area restaurants.

“People have a mindset of what this should be,” he said. “And whether it’s good or not, it’s not what it should be. And I don’t want to mess with that. So I try to make variations on things, keeping all the ingredients in there, but how they’re put in there and how they’re cooked might be a little different, so it’s still accessible.”

The menu is closer to Southern regional cooking, but he’s using foods that are familiar while tweaking them a little different so not to “intimidate anyone” and keep the menu affordable.

Rosenthall, who came to Chicago 15 years ago, joined the Kitchen when he was beginning to shift his focus from his career to giving opportunities to others.

The first class of graduates finished in June. Currently, 13 are going through the program. Rosenthall said the first class came in with excitement yet nervousness. Some conflicts arose, but as they were guided by their instructors, the students were grateful.

“A lot of times we don’t get that opportunity in a job. We get fired, or it’s never discussed with us,” he said. “Here, there’s an opportunity where they don’t get fired; they get a chance to fix it and make that change.”

Rosenthall hopes in a year, area chefs will become familiar with the program and its trainees. Because there is such a high turnover in the industry, he wants to create a database of graduates for business to draw from.

After finishing a two-year prison term and getting a referral from his best friend to the Uptown program, Pierre Johnson completed the program – and moved on from his old life.

“Getting into the program really helped me out a lot. It started getting me back on my feet,” said Johnson.

He also credits his 2-year old son with keeping him focused on his goal of becoming a chef. The Dunbar Vocational Career Academy graduate majored in culinary arts but said he didn’t pursue his dream due to the lack of funds.

“When I came home from prison, I wanted to have a family, I wanted to have a kid,” he said. “And I’ve really stayed on track.

“Besides, I’m doing something good. This whole program here is about helping out. Of course, it’s a longer story than that but at the end of the day, it’s helping out.”

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