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Students of the YWCA Culinary Program prepare a meal for shelter residents. Credit: Photo provided by the YWCA of Evanston

Mmapula Miller said she loves to share her experience as a student at the YWCA Evanston/North Shore’s culinary program to encourage others to take part.

Miller, who is 32 and originally from Botswana, has worked in hospitality as a line cook most of her life. During the pandemic, though, she became unemployed. Now she’s taking the 12-week-long job training course designed to prepare students for the food industry, as a refresher. 

Miller said the support she gets from the YWCA keeps her wanting to learn more as instructors teach her new skills and dishes every day, 

“It’s something that I’ve never seen in my life, for me coming to the states,” she said. “In my school years, I never had this kind of support.”

Not only is the YWCA Culinary Program free, it has an internship component and an opportunity to earn a food-handling certificate. The instruction and cooking takes place at Bridges, part of YWCA’s longer-term housing, which can accommodate up to 52 women and children. 

One major component of the culinary program is that students provide dinner for shelter residents seven days a week.

“It’s a little bit of a dual role, where we’re teaching people from the community and we’re also providing the meals for the residents,” said Paige Dyer, Executive Chef and Culinary Instructor. 

Dyer describes the program as a mini-course in culinary topics. Students cover safety and sanitation, basic knife skills, use of commercial equipment, cooking meat to the proper temperature, a short section on pastries and much more. 

Students attend weekdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. On Wednesdays, the YWCA provides professional development training and on Fridays students make enough dinner food to last the shelter for the weekend. 

Culinary Program student at work. Credit: Photo provided by the YWCA of Evanston

The first eight weeks of the program are instruction and cooking for residents under Dyer’s supervision. The last four weeks are a paid internship during which students take control of the kitchen and are put in charge of creating the menu.

Dyer says the program is unique because the YWCA isn’t just finding those with an interest in cooking but are drawing people who tend to use their new skills in some capacity after graduating.

Students “might want to go to culinary school themselves … They may want to open or start some type of small catering business. They might want to get a job in the field directly,” Dyer said. “They definitely can pass skills to be a line cook or prep cook or something along those lines.”

Students in the program prepare a wide menu of food for residents. The menu ranges from beef stroganoff to a chicken-and-beef jambalaya with cornbread.

“Our residents really appreciate this versus other food that they’ve seen served at other shelters … It’s definitely a step up in that regard,” Dyer said.

Miller is also a student in the YWCA Tech Lab Program, which teaches coding and basic web design. She is one of three students currently enrolled under Dyer’s instruction.

She told the RoundTable that she enjoys learning about knife-handling and cutting vegetables into shapes used in French cuisine. She said that Dyer constantly brings in new skills.

Recently, she said, Dyer has been “pulling back” and letting the students do most of the kitchen work, which Miller enjoys.

“I feel like we’re owning the work now. And we’re learning more,” Miller said. “And it makes me feel like I’m growing. I’m glad that I’m back into this again … coming back to the Y and getting this practical experience. It’s really a good thing for me.”

Debbie-Marie Brown

Debbie-Marie Brown is a reporter and Racial Justice Fellow at the Evanston RoundTable. They cover the local reparations initiative, Black life in Evanston, and the 5th ward. Contact Debbie-Marie at dmb@evanstonroundtable.com...

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  1. I did not know the Evanston YWCA had this program. Absolutely wonderful for the participants and the community. Who knows how many enrollees will begin to show up in existing and new Evanston restaurants.

  2. The headline is incorrect: it is the YWCA that has this program. Also, in the article, the address of the YWCA is incorrect.