Food and cooking had always been Malina Dunn’s dream, but not her job – until one day at church she saw a flyer that could help make her dream a reality.
The 35-year-old Austin resident saw an ad for Chicago’s Community Kitchen, the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s free 14-week food service training program, which would help her break into cooking professionally.
Dunn said she’s been cooking ever since she was 14 but wanted to advance her skills in the kitchen.
“My attitude was I knew everything I was doing, so when I got into the program I found I knew nothing of what I should know,” Dunn said.
Dunn graduated June 2013 and now works as the head chef at West Austin Development Center. She had been working as a security officer before she decided to make a career change.
“It almost completely changed my life around because I wasn’t doing anything that I really wanted to do,” she said.
Dunn said one of the biggest lessons she learned was how to make authentic dishes and not rely so much on food out of a can.
The training Dunn received through Chicago’s Community Kitchen program has made her confident enough to work in any kitchen and the desire to have her own one day. One of her long-term goals is to open a vegetarian soul food restaurant in Austin.
“I really want to do it in the Austin community,” she said. “I see the restaurants over there, and they suck. There’s nothing I would want to eat at. I want to have something where I would want to eat.”
Paul Morello, public relations manager for the Greater Chicago Food Depository, said about 1,200 participants have graduated since the program started in 1998. He said only four or five of those graduates have been from Austin.
That’s something the food depository would like to change. It’s accepting applications now for its food service program.
Morello said many of the program’s participants have lost their jobs or seen their hours reduced. He said the one thing he’s heard the most from graduates is that the program changed their lives.
“They were given the skills they need to get this push, this head start into the food service industry. And from there they had the ambition and the drive to go further and to turn their lives around,” Morello said.
Melvin Burnom is another Austin resident who’s graduated from the program. He, too, made a career change to pursue his passion for cooking.
“I’ve been cooking basically all my life but really never went into the basic skills or what ingredient goes with what,” he said.
Burnom said he’s a carpenter by trade and had been doing that for 30 years before he heard about the program. He now works at Kindred Hospital as a full-time cook.
The 55-year-old said he prefers working in hospitals because it’s not as fast paced as restaurants.
“In the winter time it always gets so slow, so I decided to pick up another trade to be able to make ends meet,” he said.
Burnom agrees with Dunn that the program changed his life. He said the program gives students bus fare for the commute, two uniforms and a set of knives. Students are also set up with a two-week internship and receive job placement assistance once the program ends.
“The real kicker is they give you $400 when you complete the program,” Burnom said. “It’s a great and wonderful program. I can’t see how anyone could fail when they give you all the tools you need to be successful.”
He’s thankful he had the opportunity to be a part of the program.
“My outlook on life is totally different now. I love my job, and I love what I do.”