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Cooking up second chances in North Philly

News Source: AL DÍA News

By: Ana Gamboa

A journey of second chances and giving back to the community has come full circle for Salvadoran-American chef Hugo Campos.

Since last October, Campos has been leading Philabundance Community Kitchen (PCK) in North Philly, a program that provides job skills for low-income women and men by preparing them to work in commercial kitchens.

“The goal is to provide not only job skills, but also employment management and to guide them through the whole job interview process,” Campos said. “And then hopefully, by the end of the program, get them employed.”

During the 14-week program, Campos oversees the students as they complete ServSafe food safety and sanitation curriculum, learn kitchen and culinary skills, and prepare meals for shelters and emergency kitchens.

The program provides students that qualify nearly 500 hours of experience at no cost through internships at restaurants including Moshulu, Earth Bread + Brewery and Pod.

“Day to day we spend about an hour in the classroom lecturing and going over topics and the fundamentals of cooking. Then we do about an hour of demos in the kitchen,” the chef said.

Stefanie Arck-Baynes, senior manager of communications and public relations for Philabundance, described PCK as a second chance program for anybody who had a rough start in their life.

“Whether they just didn’t graduate from high school, or they were formerly incarcerated or come from a difficult situation,” Arck-Baynes said, “this program not only teaches them job skills, but it teaches them life skills and a chance to make something of their lives.”

Campos knows first hand the value of a second chance. In the 1980s his parents fled the raging civil war in El Salvador and brought him to the United States.

Raised in Los Angeles, he was introduced to the world of gangs and drugs at an early age.

“East LA wasn’t the worst of neighborhoods but it wasn’t the best. Some of my childhood friends are locked up and some of them are dead. I still have family members who deal with addiction on a regular basis,” Campos said. “So those pitfalls are easy to just fall into and I was really lucky that I had good mentors. I found this profession and I was able to avoid that.”

Campos said he felt very aimless as a teenager until he started working as a dishwasher at age 17, the beginning of his journey through many kitchens.

“It was just a job at that point. It wasn’t until I started hitting roadblocks in terms of employment (…) I didn’t had any experience, they would read my last name and say ‘oh here comes another dishwasher,’” Campos said. “I got tired of being labeled and that is when I decided to go to culinary school and get serious.”

Through his 15 years in the culinary industry, he has found the passion for teaching and providing the same opportunities that changed his life to others.

“I was a 17 year old punk kid and now I am 33 year old adult who is now telling [his students] if you get serious and do some extra work’ you can really be successful,” Campos said. “Because it worked for me, I never thought I would be in this position. I am really lucky that because of that all these opportunities have sprung up in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, at some point in Hawaii, and now in Philadelphia.”

According to Philabundance, in 2012 PCK generated 350,000 meals that were distributed to area emergency kitchens and other locations.

The requisites to join the program include:

  • Low income, determined by SNAP benefit enrollment
  •  90 days clean and sober
  •  Able to pass 6-7th grade academic screening (math and reading)
  •  Able to commit to hours of program
  •  Prepared to work; ability to meet physical requirements of culinary industry (stand for hours, be able to lift 30 lbs. to name a few).
  •  No criminal offenses against children

For more information visit Philabundance. If you would like information on how to participate in the program or for enrollment information contact Desiree Neal, program and student coordinator, (215) 235-5052 x126 or send an email to dneal@philabundance.org.

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