When Ryan East first started cooking professionally, he was not eating healthy food. East said that the restaurant he worked for was chaotic, with high staff turnover and long hours, and he had a minimal meal allowance per day. On average, workers in the hotel and food industry in Charlottesville make $10.25 an hour, according to 2018 data provided by the Charlottesville Office of Economic Development and collected by the Virginia Employment Commission. The low wages and inconsistent hours can mean that those working at restaurants have little control over their own diets.“If you’re a cook or a chef and you’re cooking, you’re always eating, you’re always tasting your food. I probably didn’t eat as well as I should have — a chicken tender here, some fries here,” East said.Now, East said, he eats the same food he serves as a cook at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business hotel and conference center. East said that this job has good wages and benefits, the kitchen is well-organized and he can eat as much as he wants at the employee buffet without the cost coming out of his paycheck.The transition was made by possibly by chef Antwon Brinson’s culinary boot camp. Brinson started his company, Culinary Concepts, in 2018 and formed a partnership with the city’s economic development department, which runs the Growing Opportunities program, soon after.

“[$10.25] is not a self-sufficient wage, which is why we see so many people in this industry working multiple jobs in order to earn enough income to pay for basic necessities,” said Hollie Lee, Charlottesville’s chief of workforce development strategies. “Our goal with GO Cook is to get people started on a career track in the culinary arts.”The resulting five-week program, GO Cook, is on its fifth cohort and has helped all but two graduates find new jobs, Brinson said. The two graduates not currently pursuing food careers had personal reasons or a better offer in another industry, Brinson said.Students do not have to pay to participate in the program. A combination of funds from the city, state and Albemarle County cover the costs of the class for city and county residents, Lee said.Along with the cooking certifications and new ways of thinking about food, GO Cook offers students the chance to develop a career mindset.“When you go into an interview, you are interviewing them, just like they’re interviewing you. You want to make sure this is a good fit for you. It’s not about the money,” Brinson said.Brinson said that he has partnered with 58 restaurants, including Harvest Moon Catering and the Farmington Country Club. He emphasizes that he has started training the GO Cook graduates, but the employer has to continue the mentorship. Brinson said that part of his work is with restaurateurs to change the culture in their kitchens. Sometimes, smaller establishments do not think they can afford to pay higher wages or invest in employee training but that turnover is already draining their budgets, he said.“If the employer does right by this individual and grows them, it’s endless. A cook can become a chef one day,” Brinson said. 

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Some GO Cook graduates are already on their way to becoming restaurant owners. Shamia Hopkins is the owner of the Three and Me Cooking Co. Hopkins’ three children inspire her business and its name. She wants to save to buy a house for her family and for her children to be able to go to the movies without worrying about money. “I want my kids to have that drive,” Hopkins said. “You don’t want to work for somebody for 30 years and not have a 401(k) plan.”Being able to save is particularly important to Hopkins, given racial wealth gaps that are true across the country. She saw the pattern when her own grandmother died and was not able to leave much to her children. “Speaking for my culture, black people don’t have a lot of things to leave behind,” Hopkins said.Working as a cook for more than 10 years, Hopkins found it hard to stretch her salary to cover her food and bills, much less save up for a house.Hopkins’ main obstacle now is finding herself a kitchen. She lives at Piedmont Housing Alliance’s Friendship Court and is hoping to convince the nonprofit and the resident advisory council to add a rentable commercial kitchen when the housing complex redevelops. In the meantime, she has her eye on Trinity Episcopal Church’s Bread and Roses Community Kitchen, which she said is in high demand.“As soon as it opens, I have to jump on it,” Hopkins said.For both Hopkins and East, GO Cook has also brought the fun back to food. In his free time, East is developing his own barbecue sauce. He said that he would market it to the region near Amherst County, where he’s from.“That would just be cool to be able to go into a country store down there and see my sauce sitting there and people actually buying it, or go into someone’s house to have a barbecue or something and they have a bottle of my barbecue sauce sitting in their cabinet,” East said.

To watch CBS19’s reporting on transportation and food access, click here.

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Emily Hays

Emily Hays grew up in Charlottesville and graduated from Yale in 2016. She covered growth, development, and affordable living. Before writing for Charlottesville Tomorrow, she produced a podcast on education and caste in Maharashtra, India.