|Victory Trade School student Jay James enrobes cakes in white chocolate for a specialty dessert. Pupils learn every aspect of meal preparation while attending the school.
It’s 8 a.m. and students at the Cook’s Kettle restaurant in Springfield have been hard at work for hours. The small kitchen is abuzz as some apprentices serve breakfast while others chop vegetables, create sauces and prepare garnishes for lunch service.
“Put those in the freezer for 10 minutes to let them set up,” says Executive Chef Chadwick Isom to a pupil who’s preparing a specialty dessert that will need to be enrobed in white chocolate.
Chadwick quickly stirs and tastes a large pot of gumbo, then instructs a student to add more salt; checks the temperature of the corn pudding recently removed from the oven; puts a breakfast order up for delivery, then wipes his hands on his apron.
The busy Cook’s Kettle restaurant serves as the learning lab for students of the Victory Trade School, an intensive one-year culinary arts and hospitality program. Opened in 2003 as an outreach of Springfield Victory Mission, the school teaches the talents apprentices need to start cooking careers while offering them the stability that many haven’t experienced before.
“In their former lives, most of these men probably wouldn’t have gotten along at all,” says Chadwick, surveying the men hustling around the kitchen. “They’re happy, they work hard and are enthusiastic about what they’re doing now.
“But,” he quickly adds, “they didn’t get here on the happy bus.”
The bus that delivered them instead is that of drug and alcohol abuse, broken homes, physical abuse, mental illness and, sometimes, incarceration.
|Chef Chadwick Isom meets with the students each day after
lunch service and before afternoon classes. Student successes and challenges
are discussed at this time.
“For most of these guys, Victory Trade School is a second or third lease on life,” says Chadwick.
Victoria Queen, director for the school, echoes the sentiment.
“People make mistakes. And often, these guys feel like they’re unable to function in society because of bad choices they’ve made,” she says. “We’re here to help those who really want help to start life over again.”
The core classes at the residential school cover topics in culinary and hotel training, which are set in a non-denominational Christian-based setting. As part of the curriculum, students also attend classes covering basic life skills, communicating more effectively, conflict resolution, computer technology and Bible studies.
“We have a three-tiered application process prospective students go through,” says Victoria. “We wish we could accept everyone, but we can only pick the men we feel really will give the program their all for a year.”
Many students don’t realize how all-encompassing Victory Trade School will be before they begin the program.
|Jason Flinn completes a roux for the gumbo he's prepared to serve for
lunch at the Cook's Kettle Restaurant.
“I didn’t know what to expect when I got here,” says student Terry St. Claire. “I actually thought I would come here to become a certified culinarian. But it gave me the environment I needed to turn my life around.”
Terry, who says that he’s a recovering alcoholic, recently completed the yearlong program. Victoria and Chadwick asked him to stay on for a two-month internship as the manager-in-training at the Cook’s Kettle Restaurant. Terry, appreciative for the vote of confidence, happily obliged.
“For me, this has been an incredible journey. The instructors here have such a passion for what they do and truly care for each student, and that makes this more than just a recovery program — it’s a ministry serving others,” says Terry, 45.
Students accepted into the program don’t only learn to cook — they learn every role in the restaurant, including dishwasher, waiter, cashier and all the rotations of meal preparation. Trainees who complete all of the classes will receive seven certificates from the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation in various culinary areas.
And when they’re ready to leave the nest, Victoria and Chadwick help them find jobs.
The school is free of charge to those who are accepted. Student fees are covered by donations and grants.
Stephen Roberts, a 2005 graduate, began cooking at Twin Oaks Country Club in Springfield only days after his graduation. He was nominated for, and received, the Culinarian of the Year award in 2007, through the regional chapter of the American Culinary Federation.
|Director Victoria Queen teaches a class on food safety.
Students must complete all required classes to receive their seven
certificates from the National Restaurant Association Educational
“Coming to Victory Trade School was one of the best decisions I ever made,” says the 27-year-old native of southern California. “Chef Chadwick’s patience, mentoring and perseverance were key to my success.”
Most students, like Stephen, are thankful to have someone with Chadwick’s experience and background instructing them.
Chadwick knows exactly where many of them have been. Raised in a broken home, with an alcoholic mother and a father in prison, young Chadwick lived much of his own life behind his own veil of alcohol and drugs — until Aug. 25, 2001. That was the day Chadwick, now 39, asked God to get him off the destructive path he found himself on. “I said my first prayer.”
By 2004, Chadwick was sober, drug-free and had a good job as executive sous chef at Hemingway’s, a popular restaurant located in Springfield’s Bass Pro Shops. Then one day in 2006, while attending a local American Culinary Federation meeting, Victoria Queen came to ask the chefs to volunteer some time to cook with students at Victory Trade School.
“After a few visits, I felt a real calling that I should be working here,” says the soft spoken man. “I saw students here suffering the same things that nearly destroyed me. I knew exactly how they felt.”
“So I took a leap of faith and came to work with Victory Trade School,” says the contented chef. “In retrospect, it’s been one of the best things I’ve ever done.”
|Chef Chadwick Isom, second from the right, poses with students working the morning shift in the cozy Cook’s Kettle kitchen.
Right now, Victory Trade School only has room for 32 students, but Victoria says they’ve begun fundraising to expand in a year or two. By adding another building, they’ll also have room to make the program co-ed.
“We’re working on our accreditation, too, so credits will transfer to other colleges,” says Chadwick. “With more disciplines added, I can see the program becoming a two-year associate degree in the future.”
Then he laughs.
“We dream really big around here. With faith, there’s no reason to start out with small ideas.”
To find out more about Victory Trade School, contact Victoria Queen at 417-864-2221 or log onto www.victorytradeschool.org. The school is located at 1715 N. Boonville Ave., Springfield, MO 65803.
The Cook’s Kettle Restaurant is open to the public daily from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m., Monday through Friday, on the corner of Boonville Avenue and Commercial Street.