Give back, says Chef Weiner, and teach your students to, as well. Whether self-serving, altruistic or both, the many rewards—both personal and professional—far outweigh any inconvenience.
By Adam Weiner, CFSE
Last December I wrote the 12 things that every culinary student needs to know. It was kind of my gift to you. This year I am going to take the completely opposite approach. It is time for your students and you to start giving gifts to others.
A. For Your Students
Volunteering is important for students for a variety of reasons. Foremost, it is just a good thing to give back. At the holidays and throughout the year there are people who need help and would enjoy and appreciate your students’ volunteer efforts.
If being altruistic isn’t within your students’ skills set, then let’s talk about them volunteering for their own gain. First, I have had a number of my students hired while doing volunteer work as other chefs were volunteering or were watching. You can guess what happened. The chefs were impressed with the volunteering spirit, the students got jobs.
Furthermore, volunteering is good résumé value. With so many students coming out of culinary programs at the high school, vocational and college levels, it is important that your students have something (preferably a lot of somethings) on their résumés that separates them from the pack.
Finally, many—if not most—chefs are conscientious members of their greater community. They donate items all of the time for charity auctions, fundraisers, etc. They volunteer their time to cook at these functions and are often auctioned off several times a year. They appreciate and respect a young culinarian who shows that she or he has a similar level of commitment.
The next question is where to volunteer. Obviously a lot depends on the age and training of your students. (My daughter first volunteered at the local soup kitchen when she was 10. At the end of the day the kitchen manager told me that my daughter ordered the other volunteers to wash their hands after touching their hair or picking something off the floor, that she cut the crusts off the sandwiches, and that she arranged the sandwiches in a spiral on the tray to “add height” to the buffet. I beamed with pride when I heard this.) Let’s take a look at some possibilities:
1. Soup Kitchens. Surely your students can do as well as my 10-year-old daughter. Don’t think this will add résumé value? It shows potential employers that your students have commitment, a level of responsibility, and are willing to work hard. Oh yes, they should get a letter from the soup-kitchen manager stating that they were early, worked hard and didn’t leave before clean-up was done. That would impress any potential boss.
2. Farmers’ Markets. My students work with the promoters of the local farmers’ market to demonstrate preparation of vegetables and fruits from the market. More than one has gotten a job offer that way by chefs who were at the market.
3. Senior Centers. Many Senior Centers want people to come in to give cooking demonstrations. They teach the seniors some new nutritional cooking tips, as well as being entertainment. And yes, I had a student get a job this way, too. Apparently one of the seniors told her daughter (a local chef) about this fine young man who had taught her not to overcook vegetables.
4. Churches. Churches need help all of the time. From church fairs to chicken dinners to ice-cream socials, there are always activities going on involving food. Anyone from a junior-high student to a college grad can usually be put to good, gainful use. Again, it is important for the student to get a letter of reference stating how hardworking, clean and dependable he or she was. (Tell your students not to delay in getting this letter. People forget, get busy, move on and those letters are often hard to come by if they wait too long.)
5. Civic Organizations. Boy Scouts troops ask for cooking demos all the time. They aren’t alone. Many organizations in every community from big to small want people to come in and show their stuff. Chefs are now celebrities. Teach your students to use that celebrity status of our profession.
B. For You
You need to volunteer, as well. I know it is exhausting. We all have new classes, new students, report cards, references and reports. We all have deadlines and commitments. Believe me, I know. Within the past week I had 12 new students start my open-enrollment class and also the death of an immediate family member. I had previously volunteered to do a one-hour demonstration the night before I wrote this article to a Boy Scout troop on how to make something for Thanksgiving (like cranberry sauce) and how to safely cut and prepare vegetables and noodles for a camp-out. I would have preferred to skip it under the circumstances. Did I do the demonstration? Yes, of course. Actually, I must confess, for the entire time I was there my mind was off my other issues. The payback was the very active participation and appreciation of the scouts who begged me to come back next week.
Why volunteer? How about:
1. Professional Development. Doing something else, working with other people or giving a demonstration really hones your skills and expands your skill set. For many of you, it will count as professional-development hours.
2. It Is Usually Fun. Unless you are volunteering to do the same type of teaching you do every day, you will find the experience fun because it is new and different.
3. It Is Greatly Appreciated. We never hear enough things like “Thanks,” “That was amazing,” “Wow, I learned a lot,” “I don’t know what we would have done without you,” “Thank you so much for helping,” etc. One of the best parts of volunteering is the thanks and appreciation you receive.
4. It Gets Your Name Out There. If you Google “Chef Adam Weiner” you will see a large number of hits regarding volunteer work. Many of these are from local members of media who attended the events where I was volunteering. Again, chefs are hot celebs right now. Take advantage of that.
5. You Never Know Who Is Watching. I have been approached by people who have seen me do various volunteer things. They have offered me jobs, hired my students, donated money to the nonprofit where I teach, and have volunteered to come in and guest-teach my class.
Okay, by now you should be saying, “Where can I volunteer?”
1. The same places that are good for your students to volunteer may also be good for you.
2. Donate yourself for auction to the local police activities league, church fundraiser, Rotary event, etc.
3. If you have an honor camp at the local jail, volunteer there. I started doing that four years ago at the insistence of a good friend. It has turned out to be one of the highlights of my life. (Yes, I give them knives; no, I have never had an issue. Don’t believe me? Google me as suggested above.)
4. Judge a cooking competition. There are youth and county competitions are over the country. I have judged the county fair, but more exciting is judging the regional and California state FHA HERO competitions. I have done more than five of those, and each one is more exciting and fun than the previous one. Find a youth competition in your region and offer your services. They will snap you up in a minute.
5. Our own CAFÉ needs you: You are a member of CAFÉ (or you wouldn’t be reading this). What about volunteering to lead a seminar or roundtable discussion at an upcoming event? When it comes to respect and appreciation, you will get it. More importantly, many people in my area who have not attended a conference have told me that they knew I had been asked to speak by others who attended or by getting an e-mail blast. Even though they didn’t attend, they were quite impressed.
So go forth, and at this holiday time, you need to not only teach your students the whys and hows of volunteering, but you need to start volunteering yourself, as well.
Chef Adam Weiner, CFSE, teaches a 20-week Introduction to Cooking program for JobTrain on the San Francisco Peninsula.