‘An upward journey’: YWCA hopes to continue culinary training program after receiving Jacques Pépin Foundation grant


Photo courtesy of YWCA Evanston/North Shore

The students in the YW Culinary Program learn basic cooking skills by preparing meals for the residents in Mary Lou’s Place, YWCA’s shelter for survivors of domestic violence.

Casey He, Assistant City Editor

In 2019, YWCA Evanston/North Shore began offering job training to women interested in food service industry careers.

Nearly four years later, the YW Culinary Program is still going strong. In January, the Jacques Pépin Foundation announced that it selected YWCA Evanston/North Shore as one of 10 recipients nationwide for a $10,000 grant designed to support community-based culinary education programs.

The YW Culinary Program consists of 12 weeks of instruction. The program is free and offers a stipend to participants.

According to YWCA’s website, the culinary program is available to members of traditionally underrepresented or vulnerable communities, such as women of color and survivors of domestic violence.  

The organization currently hosts four cohorts a year, each with three to five students, according to Director of Economic Advancement Kristin Drake.

Paige Dyer, the executive chef and culinary instructor at YWCA Evanston/North Shore, said the culinary program collaborates with YWCA’s Mary Lou’s Place, a shelter for survivors of domestic violence. 

“From the first week, they are in the kitchen and cooking dinner meals for the residents in the domestic violence shelter,” Dyer said. “And they’re also learning some foundational skills, knife skills (and) food safety.”

She said the students run the kitchen and the meal-planning process for the last four weeks to learn about managerial skills. At the end of the program, students earn both the ServSafe Food Handler and Manager Certifications.

Rollie Wesen, the executive director of JPF, said supporting programs like the YWCA Culinary Program aligns with the foundation’s mission to empower individuals and strengthen communities through culinary education.

“We think that (YWCA has) a great program and great heart for their students,” he said. “We are confident that they’re going to continue to support their students, and they’re going to continue to thrive in their community.”

Wesen said the foundation awards about $250,000 in grants annually. The awardees also receive JPF-developed curricula and recipes, as well as kitchen equipment. 

Drake said the organization plans to use the grant money to purchase kitchen and classroom supplies. The money will also help support prospective students financially, she said.

“A lot of the students that we serve may have barriers in place that will prevent them from being able to complete a program like this,“ she said. “So we not only provide instruction, but we also provide things like support for child care (and) support for transportation throughout the program.”

Drake said she hopes the program will continue to have an impact on the community and support individuals who did not have access to this type of opportunity. 

For Dyer, the grant also has a special significance. 

“Chef Pépin is my inspiration for becoming a chef,” she said. “It just comes full circle for me as a chef that receiving this grant has been like a kind of confirmation of where I’m supposed to be career-wise.”

Since joining YWCA in 2021, Dyer said working with students from different backgrounds and skill levels has been deeply rewarding.

She said she hopes the culinary program will continue to grow and provide students with skills and information for “an upward journey.”

“They can utilize all of these different skills in pretty much any job that they’re going to, so it doesn’t necessarily have to end at culinary,” she said. “This is a great beginning for a lot of people.”

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Twitter: @caseeey_he

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