It’s a busy morning in the Inspiration Kitchens classroom kitchen. As chef instructor Jay Bliznick walks the class through its first assignment, a basic French bread, his students begin reading through and writing down the recipe. This morning they’ll not only make bread, but also learn the process for making pate choux dough, bake several dozen chocolate chip cookies, roast chickens for chicken salad, learn how to break down a whole fish, then turn THAT into a lesson on en papillote cooking.
He encourages them all to read every recipe at least three times before they even start gathering their mise en place, to make sure they’re clear on each step. That’s a good kitchen tip for every cook, but for these chefs-in-training, it’s just one of the building blocks in a foundation of professional kitchen habits—sanitation, communication, kitchen safety—the Inspiration Kitchens program aims to instill in its students.
Inspiration Kitchens was founded as Inspiration Corporation by a former Chicago police officer, Lisa Nigro. It started in 1989 as your basic food distribution project—handing out sandwiches and coffee to Chicago’s homeless men and women. From there, it blossomed into a program that not only gives students who have experienced homelessness, addiction, and poverty a set of professional skills intended to help them improve their circumstances, but also the social services required to set them up for success in the program, and beyond.
The 13-week course, which includes both classroom and on-the-job training through Inspiration Kitchens’ restaurant and catering service, is free to students, but this is not a hand out. There’s a big commitment required from both sides for the process to work. Inspiration Kitchens provides the training, tools and equipment, help with transportation costs, and job placement assistance; students have to show up to class on time every time, which means they need to make sure obstacles at home, such as childcare or other family comittments, are buttoned up before they start the program. As a result, some students have had to leave the program and come back a time or two before achieving completion. The payoff for all their focus and determination can be big, though. Many students leave the program with jobs in some of Chicago’s best kitchens waiting for them.
Student Erica Payne, who grew up on Chicago’s West Side, started the program in December and is close to graduation. She eventually wants to own her own bakery, making sales through a website vs. a traditional brick and mortar operation. But, she knows for that dream to become a reality she has to stick to the plan she, Chef Jay, and her counselor have worked out. So what’s next for her? More training.
“Inspiration Kitchens is a great jumping off point. We learn the basics… They’ve suggested I go to the French Pastry Institute. They think I would do well there. Then, I want to buy some property…maybe travel before I settle down and start my business.”
Chef Jay acknowledges that for students like Erica, who came into the program with their passion already well developed, Inspiration Kitchens isn’t so much lighting a fire as it is helping to keep the flame burning through all the hard work, “They have a passion for food… they’ve led themselves to the opportunity.”
However, it’s the students who have come into the program without a clear idea of an end result that Chef Jay sees as the most exciting challenge, “Those are the ones who I want to thrive. I want them to be able to taste something they’ve never tasted for the first time…My challenge is to try to bring out the passion that maybe has lie dormant, or maybe they didn’t even know they had.”
Inspiration Kitchens is located at 3504 West Lake Street in Chicago, near the Garfield Park Green Line stop. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday; Brunch and Dinner on Saturday; and for Sunday Brunch. Reservations can be made through the website. Full service catering is available for corporate events, private parties, and weddings, with event space available on site.