Salvation Army culinary school: A recipe for success

A graduation in Napa Friday evening featured a gourmet meal and a new start in life.

The Salvation Army's Culinary Training Academy graduated seven students, who were formerly homeless or struggling with substance abuse.

The program, in its third year, trains them for jobs in food service and hospitality, and provides counseling, housing, and career support.

"The talent is huge in this class," said Executive Chef Paul Fields, speaking to the graduate's friends and families, gathered for the graduation.

The ceremony is preceded by a plated meal the students plan and prepare.

On the menu: short ribs, au gratin potatoes, and roasted carrots, followed by several dessert options.

"We needed someone to bring it out in us and that's what they did here," said graduate Johnny Gibson, as he was presented with a food handler certificate issued by the County of Napa.

The students learn culinary skills but also develop confidence and character.

"I learned how to work in a team, and stay honest, and have a work ethic," graduate Anthony Zambrano told KTVU.

Zambrano says he drank away his 20's, describing it as a "fog", but now, with sobriety and new knowledge, he has a job at a Japanese restaurant in Napa.

"I love to create, my goal is to be a chef," said Zambrano, as he greeted his mom and other relatives who traveled from Southern California for the ceremony.

"I don't actually take any of this for granted," said Zambrano, "because I know it can be gone any second, so every day is a blessing."

That attitude makes graduates from the Salvation Army program attractive hires.

"Everyone knows my guys are clean and sober and they're trained, and they want to be there," Chef Fields told KTVU.

He has run the program since it began in 2016, training students from age 21 to 60.

His students come from painful life experience: jail, addiction, homelessness, but they find guidance in the program, which houses them on the Salvation Army property to maintain stability.

"In the kitchen you belong to a team, you belong to an organization, it's a brother and sisterhood, so when you're here, you have support," said Fields.

Graduate Danielle Gendron made a discovery during training.

"Baking is my niche, and I have a talent for it," said the 24 year old, who plans to be a pastry chef.

It's a goal she never imagined when drinking.

"I had lost my house, I had lost my car, I had lost my family, I had lost everything," said Gendron.

At graduation, no one was more proud of her turnaround than her parents, enjoying the triumph with her.

"Her life has changed, our life has changed, and our relationship together has changed, it's nothing short of amazing and a miracle," said father Bruce Gendron, of his daughter's newfound sobriety.

"We have our girl back," said mother Kris Gendron, "and it's a little scary because we are in Napa and it's wine country, but she says she's fine, she's got this, and I believe her."

Nine in ten students are still sober, and still employed, a year after graduation.

Onstage, Chef Fields shared anecdotes about each student, and they responded with gratitude.

"I want to thank my classmates, because as frustrating as you all are, I enjoyed every minute of being in this class with you," said graduate John Sargent, as the audience laughed.

The training is challenging; 12 students started the session and only 7 made it.

A new class begins in October, and Salvation Army hopes to expand its culinary program to more locations.

Currently, it is offered only in Napa, Sacramento and Lodi.