Eighteen-year-old Cheyla Ponace may soon answer to "Chef Cheyla."
The Grade 12 student at Children of the Earth High School is one of 13 inner-city high school students to get kitchen experience through the provincial government’s After School Leaders program, which provides practical work experience to kids from underprivileged communities.
The students — from Churchill, Elmwood, R.B. Russell, Children of the Earth, St. John’s, Gordon Bell, Niji Mahkwa and Hugh John Macdonald schools — spent three nights a week for 10 weeks learning food preparation, handling and serving skills through Red River College’s Culinary Arts program.
The Leaders program culminated with a four-course banquet dinner for friends and family on Dec. 11 at the RRC’s Paterson GlobalFoods Institute in Union Bank Tower (504 Main St.).
"They’d come at 4 p.m., and after a snack, we’d start in the kitchen at 4:30 p.m.," said Chef Karl Oman, a culinary arts instructor at RRC.
"We’d be in the kitchen until 7:30 p.m. and one night of every week we’d do classroom (work) for 30 to 45 minutes, to get them ready for their food handler examination.
Oman said going into the program, many of the students not only had limited cooking experience, but also real food experience.
"We ate vegetables some of them had never had before, like all of the fall vegetables, the squashes, acorn, spaghetti, beets, brussels sprouts, things they’d never seen," Oman said.
"Hopefully, they’ll understand food is not so hard to make and it doesn’t have to come from a package."
Ponace enjoyed the program so much that she’s applying to the Culinary Arts program.
"This year when I graduate high school I’m going to be coming here for the Culinary Arts, and the pastry and mixology classes here," she said.
Ben Nguyen, a Grade 9 student at Hugh John Macdonald School, isn’t planning on going into the food service industry, but is coming out of the program with valuable life skills.
"If I were to live alone after school, I would know how to cook for myself and not have to waste a lot of money on restaurants," he said.
In addition to the culinary arts program at RRC, the After School Leaders program’s partners includes True North Sports & Entertainment Ltd., the Manitoba Theatre for Young People, Graffiti Gallery, Freeze Frame Manitoba and Ka Ni Kanichihk.
Kevin Chief, Manitoba’s Minister of Children and Youth Opportunities, said not only does the program provide work experience; it makes kids more likely to pursue post-secondary education.
"When you look at why someone doesn’t attend post-secondary, you would think they can’t afford it or their mom and dad didn’t go," Chief said. "Now those are factors, but actually the number one reason why someone doesn’t attend post-secondary is simply because they haven’t been asked in a meaningful way.
"How do we give all young people a tap on the shoulder to say post-secondary is for you? Through working with people like Chef Karl, all of a sudden they now know post-secondary is possible because they have the relationships established."